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Nano-scientists: Students were behind breakthrough

First year bachelor students manage to mimic nature's self-assembly in the laboratory

University of Copenhagen student researchers have found nothing less than a way to mimic the ‘self-assembling’ of nature.

A group led by Associate Professor Thomas Just Sørensen at the Department of Chemistry, UCPH connected to the Nano-Science Center, has proposed a method to produce organic multi-layered films, with stable and defined structural dynamics. These films obey the principles of structural self-organization in nature under given parameters of temperature, pH, charge and molecule shape.

“These designs and principles exist in nature such as the phospholipid bilayer membranes around a cell which constantly conducts ion and material flows in and out of the cell. And harnessing this feature just requires us to know which lego blocks available in nature will deliver the specific structures we want to build just as we would like square pieces to build walls and triangular pieces to build a roof. We have used a similar idea to use organic dye compounds and detergent molecules to achieve this structure,” he explains to the University Post.

Science looks up to nature

The hope for nano-scale miniaturisation is to go even smaller than the smallest microchips. The first computers were heavy boxes filled with massive circuit boards. Today our phones have a processor that is faster and more powerful than several of those early beasts put together.

“we don’t want the students to follow cookbook protocols and experiments. We want them to learn how to think.”

But innovators have arrived at the limit of small in designing devices. Chip designers are at their wits end. Electricity flows generate heat that can have damaging effects on the circuitry over time. Silicon based microchips are also brittle which is what makes them ‘semi’-conductors. So we need a replacement for these silicon scaffolds to draw our next-generation circuit designs on.

Just as it happens ever so often, technology has to get back to the drawing board to seek inspiration from basic science which in turn looks up to Mother Nature.

No cookbook protocols

Dr. Marco Santella is the lead author of the study published in the peer reviewed ChemNanoMat.

“The real credit goes to the students whose quality of work belied the variations expected in results due to so many hands performing the experiments. The data was clear cut and delivered a strong message even if most of the students had probably never been in a lab before, let alone work on a relevant scientific problem.”

Thomas Just Sørensen adds that “we don’t want the students to follow cookbook protocols and experiments. We want them to learn how to think. And there is no better way to achieve that than by actually giving them tools and a problem to solve. That’s when they will achieve the objectives of learning”.

New data coming

The published data come from a NanoScience group of 2013 first year students, explains Thomas Just Sørensen.

“We are currently analyzing the work of the 2014 group. We expect that the serial challenges that can take the science further will be perfect exercises for the students in the coming years. They do the real work and then we share the work load of studying and analyzing their data”.

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