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Tiny but powerful: NSF-funded center will develop tech that can more rapidly identify nanocrystals to serve medicine and energy

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A multi-institution team of researchers led by Indiana University (IU) chemist Sara Skrabalak and featuring two Texas A&M University chemists has been awarded $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation to establish a research center focused on transforming nanocrystal discovery and design.

Nanocrystals are microscopic collections of atoms that drive innovation in all sectors of the economy. They are used in catalytic converters, transparent sunscreens, self-cleaning surfaces and medicines.

The new Center for Single-Entity Nanochemistry and Nanocrystal Design is part of the NSF’s Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI) Program funded through the NSF Division of Chemistry and focused on long-term, fundamental chemical research challenges.

In addition to Skrabalak, the research team includes  Xingchen Ye of IU, Texas A&M chemists Lane Baker and Xin Yan, The University of Texas at Austin’s Graeme Henkelman and Temple University’s Katherine Willets.

Together, they will develop new technologies to rapidly identify and leverage the unique properties of nanocrystals in a variety of applications, such as disease treatments and platforms for sustainable energy.

Nanocrystals are so small that they’re measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. But Skrabalak said that contrary to their size, they have huge potential.

“Nanocrystals are a driver of innovation because they display properties distinct from their bulk — or larger — form,” Skrabalak said. “For example, we are all familiar with the lustrous yellow of gold bricks, but nanocrystals of gold can appear nearly any color, depending on their specific size and shape. The new properties of nanocrystals and the ability to tune those properties with their size and shape is opening up a wealth of opportunities.”

However, the diversity of nanocrystals within one sample makes the discovery process challenging, requiring researchers to analyze each nanocrystal in a sample individually.

“Conceptually, this challenge is similar to drug discovery and design, where there is a large experimental space from which a promising target has to be identified,” Skrabalak said. “Over the past few decades, the drug discovery process has been transformed by automated testing and detection of large numbers of drug targets, which has shortened the time it takes to find a viable therapeutic.”

Inspired by the similarities, Skrabalak said she and her colleagues will apply drug discovery strategies to single nanocrystal analyses to create the scientific toolkit and chemical knowledge to transform the discovery of promising nanocrystals with exceptional properties for application in a wide range of research.