Ursinus Students To Study Nanotubes in MIT Lab

Imagine a needle so tiny that it could deliver a dose of medicine to a single cell.That same needle, according to Ursinus Associate Professor of Chemistry Mark Ellison, could detect intracellular substances and find diseases long before symptoms arise.

Ursinus chemistry students will work on this research with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to learn more about carbon nanotubes and their properties under a new grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant will allow chemistry research students to study the transport of small molecules and biologically important ions through single-walled carbon nanotubes.

According to Ellison, this needle of the future “could be a single-walled carbon nanotube, a form of carbon in which the carbon atoms arrange themselves to form a hollow tube about 10,000 times narrower than a human hair.” Dr. Ellison and MIT Professor of Chemical Engineering Michael Strano were awarded a collaborative proposal from the NSF titled, “Single-Walled Carbon Nanotube: Nanopores for Motion Control of Biologically Important Molecules and Ions and Undergraduate Training in Nanopore Transport.”

The collaboration stems from Dr. Ellison’s Fall 2011 sabbatical leave when he spent time in Professor Strano’s research group at MIT, studying the motion of sodium, potassium, and other ions through nanopores, which the Strano group makes by covering carbon nanotubes with a silicone polymer.  Building on the work done during Dr. Ellison’s sabbatical, he and Professor Strano will study the motion of biologically important ions, such as amino acids, and small neutral molecules, such as methanol and ethanol, through these carbon nanotube nanopores.

Ursinus students involved in the research will have the opportunity to travel to MIT to attend workshops on nanotubes and their properties.  Additionally, Ursinus students will spend some time working in the Strano lab, constructing and characterizing the nanopore devices. At MIT, Ursinus students will learn to use research-grade instrumentation, such as an atomic force microscope, a Raman microscope, and a plasma etcher.  Students will then study ion transport through nanotubes at Ursinus, using electrochemical techniques.

Students will apply their classroom knowledge to study an important scientific problem and see how basic research lays the foundation for technological innovations, said Dr. Ellison. “Students involved in research learn to develop confidence in their ability to work independently. On top of that it is a tremendous opportunity for Ursinus students to collaborate with a cutting-edge laboratory at one of the world’s leading research institutions.”

Professor Strano added, “This project is exciting because it will fulfill several important roles. First and foremost, students from Ursinus and MIT will learn from each other in the context of scientific research, and should be rewarding to all involved. Secondly, our collaborative research on understanding molecular transport through nanometer-sized pores will greatly benefit from the resources of both institutions.”

The research, said Dr. Ellison, “will have potential applications in the sensing and delivery of ions and molecules at the cellular level. The motion of single ions through carbon nanotubes can be readily detected, so this research is a step toward a minimally invasive way to detect cellular contents whose levels are too low to be detectable using conventional techniques.  Additionally, the motion of ions through carbon nanotubes can be finely controlled, so this work could develop new ways of delivering appropriate amounts of therapeutic agents at the cellular level.”

The grant will fund student research during the school year, student participation in Summer Fellows, travel to MIT, and travel to conferences to present their results. It runs through August 2016.

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