Overview: Bionic Nanomaterials
Research activities in the McAlpine Research Group have primarily focused on bionic nanotechnologies, for fundamental and applied research in the biomedical and energy sciences. Bionics is defined as "The study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms." The development of a method for interfacing high performance devices with biology could yield breakthroughs in regenerative medicine, smart prosthetics, and human-machine interfaces. Yet, most high quality inorganic materials are two dimensional, hard and brittle, and their crystallization generally requires high temperatures for maximally efficient performance. These properties render the corresponding devices incompatible with biology, which is three dimensional, soft, and temperature sensitive. Nanotechnology provides a route for overcoming these dichotomies, by altering the mechanics of materials while revealing new effects due to size scaling. The novel properties of nanomaterials coupled with 'living' platforms may enable exciting avenues in fundamental nano-bio interface studies and a variety bioMEMS applications, including the creation of augmented bionic nanosystems.
I. Bionic Nanosystems
The ability to three-dimensionally interweave biological tissue with functional electronics could enable the creation of bionic organs possessing enhanced functionalities over their biological counterparts. We are developing novel strategies for additive manufacturing (3D printing) of biological cells with a variety of nanoelectronic elements and functionalities. As a proof of concept, we have 3D printed bionic ears in the anatomic geometries of human ears. The printed ears contain interwoven conducting nanoparticle inks, which permit the organs to exhibit inductive electronic sensing for radio frequency reception.
II. Bionic Nanosensors
The synergism of nanotechnology and molecular biology may enable new frontiers in biomimetic detection. Chemical and biological sensing requires a recognition platform to selectively detect target analytes. Our group has developed new methods for linking biorecognition molecules such as peptides with nanosensors to enable sensitive and selective detection of various species. Further, we've shown the silk-mediated interfacing of graphene nanosensors onto biomaterials such as teeth. These advances may enable novel, versatile platforms for ubiquitous target detection and point-of-care diagnostics.
III. Bionic Nanoenergy
The development of a method for interfacing energy conversion materials with biology could enable new avenues of powering portable, wearable, and implantable biomedical devices. Piezoelectric materials such as PZT are particularly interesting due to their highly efficient electromechanical coupling, but are difficult to synthesize at nanometer scales. Our group has developed new methods for the generation and characterization of PZT nanomaterials. In addition, we've demonstrated the ability to biointerface these nanomaterials with cells and tissue, for investigations in biomechanics and energy harvesting.