Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology has been awarded a U.S. Air Force Center of Excellence grant to design advanced bioprogrammable nanomaterials.
The goal is to develop solutions to challenging problems in the areas of energy, the environment, security and defense, as well as for developing ways to monitor and mitigate human stress.
The five-year, $9.8 million grant establishes the Center of Excellence for Advanced Bioprogrammable Nanomaterials, the only one of its kind in the country. After the initial five years, the grant potentially could be renewed for an additional five years.
“Northwestern University was chosen to lead this Center of Excellence because of its investment in infrastructure development, including new facilities and instrumentation; its recruitment of high-caliber faculty members and students; and its track record in bio-nanotechnology and cognitive sciences,” said Timothy Bunning, chief scientist at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.
Led by IIN Director Chad A. Mirkin, C-ABN will support collaborative, discovery-based research projects aimed at developing bioprogrammable nanomaterials that will meet both military and civilian needs and facilitate the efficient transition of these new technologies from the laboratory to marketplace.
Bioprogrammable nanomaterials are structures that typically contain a biomolecular component, such as nucleic acids or proteins, which give the materials a variety of novel capabilities.
Nanomaterials can be designed to assemble into large 3-D structures, to interface with biological structures inside cells or tissues, or to interface with existing macroscale devices, for example. These new bioprogrammable nanomaterials and the fundamental knowledge gained through their development will ultimately lead to the creation of wearable, portable and/or human-interactive devices with extraordinary capabilities that will significantly impact both civilian and Air Force needs.
In one research area, scientists will work to understand the molecular underpinnings of vulnerability and resilience to stress. They will use bioprogrammable nanomaterials to develop ultrasensitive sensors capable of detecting and quantifying biomarkers for human stress in biological fluids (e.g., saliva, perspiration or blood), providing means to easily monitor the soldier during times of extreme stress. Ultimately, these bioprogrammable materials may lead to methods to increase human cellular resilience to the effects of stress and/or to correct genetic mutations that decrease cellular resilience of susceptible individuals.
Other research projects, encompassing a wide variety of nanotechnology-enabled goals, include:
- Developing hybrid wearable energy-storage devices;
- Developing devices to identify chemical and biological targets in a field environment;
- Developing flexible bio-electronic circuits;
- Designing a new class of flat optics; and
- Advancing understanding of design rules between 2-D and 3-D architectures.
The analysis of these nanostructures also will extend fundamental knowledge in the fields of materials science and engineering, human performance, chemistry, biology and physics.
The center will be housed under the IIN, providing researchers with access to IIN’s entrepreneurial community and its close ties with Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
“This collaborative and dynamic relationship has resulted in the founding of more than 20 successful startup companies over the past 10 years, working through the university’s Innovation and New Ventures Office,” Mirkin said. He is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
The center also will provide opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to work with researchers at AFRL laboratories.
“The integration of learning and real-world experience is a critical component of Northwestern’s strategic plan,” Vice President of Research Jay Walsh said. “The new Center of Excellence will provide unique opportunities that will help to position our students to become the leading researchers of tomorrow.”