NRC-University of Alberta Nanotechnology Initiative

Overview of the Nanotechnology Initiative

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the University of Alberta (U of A) have a long‑standing research partnership designed to expand Canadian nanotechnology capacity and foster breakthrough research. This formal bilateral collaboration is now referred to as the Nanotechnology Initiative (NI). Round 1 projects are in the final stages of completion, and a call for collaborative project proposals for Round 2 was announced in August 2020.

Round 2 projects

Following a two‑stage proposal process and rigorous peer review, the following 8 projects have been approved for Round 2 of the NI. These NRC and U of A collaborative nanotechnology projects will be three years in duration starting October 1, 2021. The next NI call for proposals is anticipated in 2023.

Atom scale manufacturing

NRC Project Leader: Dr. Jason Pitters

U of A Project Leader: Dr. Robert Wolkow

Abstract: The University of Alberta and the Nanotechnology Research Centre have identified that some simple atomic circuits can have immense commercial value. Some circuit elements have been proven to operate in a low temperature scanning tunneling microscope (LT STM). However, testing beyond the restrictive LT STM environment is desired and several key areas of research need to advance in order to move the circuit elements from the LT STM to an independent test setup.

These areas of research include: 1) Further development of atomic circuit elements such as single electron transistors, gates, and wires. This work will involve creation and testing of atomic structures using atomic force microscopy (AFM) and STM. 2) Input and output strategies to connect the macro‑world to the atomic structures. Both STM and multiple probe STM will evaluate various macro to atom wires. 3) Silicon preparation strategies for optimal circuit control and integration to a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS). Silicon doping and microfabrication will be involved to investigate the integration of atomic circuits with CMOS components. 4) Circuit encapsulation for removal from vacuum. Microfabrication will investigate the containment of atomic circuits within wafer bonded silicon containers. 5) Tool development (linear scanners and lithography probes) for improved circuit element yields and new measurements.

These are all challenging aspects for atomic circuit development but also have general goals that will be important in various aspects of future nano‑ and atom‑science.

Controlled release and adsorption from gel‑based nanomaterials

NRC Project Leader: Dr. Darren Makeiff

U of A Project Leader: Dr. Michael Serpe

Abstract: Gel‑based nanomaterials have attracted significant scientific interest for the encapsulation and release of small molecules, as well as their ability to selectively adsorb and retain small molecules from mixtures. The main focus of this project will be the design, synthesis, and characterization of new, stimuli‑responsive gel‑based nanomaterials. Functional groups will be incorporated into the gel‑based nanomaterials to impart responsiveness to stimuli such as light, heat, and pH. The new strategy involves new hybrid gel nanoparticles (nanogels) composed of a chemically cross‑linked, polymeric hydrogel network and a stimuli‑responsive physical hydrogel network formed from functional low molecular weight gelators (LMWGs). The ability of the reversibly forming, stimuli‑responsive, physical hydrogel from the LMWG to form an interpenetrating network within the nanogel's chemically crosslinked polymeric core will be investigated. We will determine the ability of the LMWG and the nanogel to release small molecules (and drugs) to systems in a triggered, and potentially synergistic, fashion. Synthesis of such materials has not been attempted before and will lead to novel, stimuli‑responsive gel‑materials for drug delivery, water purification, as well as other applications of interest to the NRC and University of Alberta.

Deployment of membrane nanodiscs to develop native‑state antigens and therapeutic antibodies

NRC Project Leader: Dr. Joey Sheff

U of A Project Leader: Dr. Michael Overduin

Abstract: Approximately one‑third of the human proteome are membrane bound receptors which translate extracellular signals into normal cellular function. As such, malfunctions at the level of these membrane‑bound "gatekeepers" leads to various disease states. Their localization in the cell surface is a double‑edged sword: they offer ideal targets for antibody therapeutics, but their preparation and characterization are limited by technical challenges relating to stability and solubility. Here, receptors involved in central nervous system disorders will be tackled with new tools to develop targeted antibody‑based interventions. Styrene maleic anhydride (SMA) polymers developed at the University of Alberta will be used to enhance generation of candidate antibody therapeutics against difficult membrane‑bound G‑protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) currently being explored at the NRC. These biocompatible polymers extract and solubilize membrane‑bound proteins into lipid nanodiscs while preserving native conformations, and an array of smart polymers will be tested. The NRC will explore the integration of membrane‑bound antigens into their antibody‑discovery pipeline as a means of enhancing antigen presentation and characterization capabilities. These will be used as immunogens for generating antibodies and for downstream biophysical assays for lead therapeutic selection. Receptors and their associated lipids will be visualized by electron microscopy, light scattering, mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, to discern the detailed structure‑function relationships of therapeutic candidates. The long‑term goal is to scale the use of this patented new nanoparticle technology to develop therapeutic antibodies and drug leads as candidate therapies for neurological disorders while providing deeper mechanistic understanding of a growing array of critical disease targets.

Hybrid optical and electron spectroscopy of diamond for nanophotonic extreme‑ultraviolet radiation sources: Phase II

NRC Project Leader: Dr. Marek Malac

U of A Project Leader: Dr. Frank Hegmann

Abstract: No compact laser light sources exist in the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) region. Compact EUV sources could lead to new tools in chemical sensing and suppression of pathogens (e.g., COVID‑19). EUV sources are critical for in computer processor lithography. EUV photonics will enable compact and fast data processing and information storage.

In Phase I of this project, we have established leadership in study of materials for EUV and device fabrication in several ways. We have identified materials and physical phenomena that can be exploited to generate EUV light. We have conclusively shown the existence of EUV plasmons in silicon, germanium and diamond using first principles calculations and momentum resolved electron energy loss spectroscopy (qEELS) experiments. Finally, we have performed high‑temperature characterization of these materials to show their stability. Therefore, we have overcome a wide range of materials science challenges.

In parallel, Paul Barclay's team have extended their pioneering diamond nanofabrication capabilities to include photonic crystals. These capabilities, developed jointly at the Nanotechnology Research Centre and the University of Alberta NanoFAB, are a key step towards enhancing and engineering EUV emission that we will pursue in Phase II. From a fundamental perspective, these devices provide a platform for probing the EUV properties of diamond nanostructures. In the longer term, the "quasi‑isotropic" etching technique that Barclay's lab uses to fabricate diamond devices could be applied to other materials, including germanium. Some of Barclay's materials were investigated by qEELS, thus closing the loop from theory to materials characterization. Phase II aims at device fabrication and characterization.

Quantifying nanoparticle evolution via in‑operando electron microscopy

NRC Project Leader: Dr. Michael Fleischauer

U of A Project Leader: Dr. Jonathan Veinot

Abstract: Nanomaterials hold promise of making tremendous impacts in far reaching areas ranging from energy storage and conversion to healthcare. While static interrogation of nanomaterial structure and composition has, and continues to provide, valuable insight, nanomaterials are kinetically trapped systems that evolve when exposed to external stresses (e.g., temperature variation, processing conditions, electrical potential, etc.). As such, there is a nascent need to develop new in‑operando characterization methods that provide direct evaluation/characterization of nanomaterials "in action." We are uniquely positioned to meet this challenge.

Our team's extensive expertise in nanomaterial design/preparation/characterization/application and the access to powerful instrumentation at the Nanotechnology Research Centre and the University of Alberta sets us up to lead game‑changing breakthroughs. Collaboration with the Nanotechnology Research Centre's electron microscopy team provides an opportunity to develop cutting‑edge instrumentation and materials insight. Our intent is to demonstrate the power of the teams' new capabilities with state‑of‑the‑art nanoparticle assemblies designed for improved energy storage systems and light emitting devices. For example, major challenges managing volume changes and understanding reactivity are restricting the potential of lithium‑ion batteries. Emerging lower dimensional materials like two‑dimensional van der Waals compounds (e.g., silicane, germanane, functionalized reduced graphene oxide) present a compelling route toward high‑performance energy‑storage devices. Establishing new microscopy methods that probe in‑operando evolution of nanomaterials while complementing current ex‑situ interrogation methods will allow the development of novel functionalized nanoparticle and nanosheet assemblies and establish structure‑property relationships, leading to improved high‑performance clean energy storage devices.

Terahertz ultrafast transmission electron microscope

NRC Project Leader: Dr. Marek Malac

U of A Project Leader: Dr. Frank Hegmann

Abstract: Our goal is proof‑of‑principle demonstration of ultrafast electron beam generation, electron wavepacket manipulation and analysis of the ultrafast electron beam using terahertz (THz) pulse electromagnetic fields. The primary outcome is the understanding of the fundamental science of electron wavepacket control in THz fields and demonstration of proof‑of‑principle instrumentation. If successful, our project will enable a compact, terahertz ultrafast transmission electron microscope (THz‑UTEM). A THz‑UTEM would enable observation of samples at temporal resolution comparable to atomic vibrations. THz‑UTEM could lead to new electron spectroscopy modes capable of identifying materials by their vibrational spectra at high spatial resolution.

We will utilize a continuous electron beam manipulated by THz electric and magnetic fields. While this approach was recently demonstrated with radio‑frequency fields, the use of high‑intensity THz pulses offers significantly higher peak electric and magnetic fields, reduces the size of the THz waveguide/resonator structures, and offers high stability that should make our solution transferable to 100‑300 kilovolt electron microscopes.

The project is enabled by expertise and hardware that already exist at the Nanotechnology Research Centre and the University of Alberta. With modest incremental investment, we aim to establish leadership in ultrafast characterization of materials at the nanoscale.

Using immunoglobulin E to target mast cell proteases in protein misfolding and neurodegeneration

NRC Project Leader: Dr. Marianna Kulka

U of A Project Leader: Dr. Valerie Sim

Abstract: Prions are transmissible pathogens that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle, chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids, and Creutzfeldt‑Jakob disease in humans. Humans and animals can acquire the disease orally, with prions entering via the mucosa of the gastrointestinal tract. There are no treatments for these fatal diseases, but some promising strategies are based on immunotherapy, i.e. using antibodies to clear prions from infected tissues. However, designing these antibodies is difficult because prions are misfolded versions of a normal protein (PrP) that the body does not recognize as foreign, hence prions do not produce robust antibody responses. The antibodies also cannot easily penetrate tissues nor bind prions with high affinity. Current strategies have relied on one type of antibody, Immunoglobulin G (IgG), even though the immune system makes five different types. We contend that IgG's are not the most effective antibody for targeting prions, because they are evolutionarily selected to function best in the circulation, have a short half‑life, and do not work well at mucosal surfaces. In contrast, Immunoglobulin E (IgE), best known for their role in allergic reactions, are effective at very low concentrations for long periods of time, and they recognize and eliminate pathogens in the gastrointestinal tract. We have already reverse engineered an anti‑PrP IgE and we have shown that it binds to the FceRI (high affinity receptor for IgE) on human mast cells and activates their release of proteases that can degrade PrP. This is proof‑of‑principle for the feasibility of a novel immunotherapeutic approach for acquired prion disease.

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NRC-University of Alberta Nanotechnology Initiative

Round 1 projects

Round 1 of the Nanotechnology Initiative involves a joint investment of $10M over the span of 3 years starting on April 1, 2018, for 9 projects aligned with strategic priorities such as immunotherapy, energy harvesting and storage, photonics, electronics and nanodevices. Please note: Round 1 has been extended by 6 months to September 30, 2021.

Immunoglobulin E (IgE)‑based immunotherapy strategies for prion disease

The project researchers contend that a single type of antibody, IgG, is not the most effective type of antibody for targeting prions. They will test their hypothesis by creating novel anti‑prion IgEs, verifying their interaction with normal cell‑surface glycoprotein and misfolded prion proteins (scrapie isoform of the prion protein) and testing their ability to trigger clearance of infectious prion proteins in‑vitro in‑cell cultures. This work will provide proof‑of‑principle for the feasibility of new immunotherapeutic approaches for prion disease.

When physics strengthens chemistry: Designing molecular junctions with novel electronic functions

The project combines expertise in theory, experiments, and commercial applications in molecular electronics, which represents a new class of electronic components with distinct characteristics from conventional semiconductors. The key objective of the collaboration is "rational design" of molecular electronic devices with behaviours and functions difficult or impossible with existing electronics.

Nanofluidics to study emulsion stability

Emulsions pose serious engineering challenges in the petroleum industry. Crude oils always contain some water, most of which is in form of large droplets that can be easily removed. The primary objective of this project is to observe and monitor in real time the process of asphaltene aggregation and the consequent changes of the thin film rheology at the length scales of in‑situ water‑in‑crude oil emulsions.

Hybrid optical and electron spectroscopy of diamond for nanophotonic extreme‑ultraviolet radiation sources

The project researchers are investigating physics that may lead to extreme‑ultraviolet coherent light sources (EUV). They use momentum‑resolved electron energy spectroscopy in a transmission electron microscope to understand materials properties that are essential for fabrication of nanostructures needed for such EUV sources.

Graphene in all‑new nanodevice technologies

The graphene in all‑new nanodevice technologies (GIANNT) project will investigate graphene‑based nanodevices augmented by plasmonics. In particular, the project goal is to find methods to integrate nanostructured plasmonic gratings or other nanoscale architectures directly onto nanoscale electronic structures (e.g., graphene field‑effect transistors) to obtain new materials and devices that capitalize on the emerging and novel properties of graphene.

Nano‑optomechanical devices for ultrasensitivity and quantum information

The epitome of modern chemical analysis is mass spectrometry. Imagine this analytical power lifted from the lab bench and placed in your hand, able to analyze your breath for disease, for example. Nano‑optomechanical devices could enable this vision, once they reach ambient sensing at the level of a single Dalton (one atomic mass unit). To get there, the project researchers will leverage the ultrahigh power density of quantum‑enabling‑diamond nano‑optomechanical systems while exploiting an incredible recent discovery that sensitivity improves with higher damping.

Adaptive self‑assembled materials for manipulating mast cells

Mast cells play a distinct and central role in the innate immune response and are characterized by their rapid release of a myriad of proinflammatory mediators in response to stimulation. Previously, the project researchers showed that a self‑assembling peptide matrix could be used to activate human mast cells in skin in vivo through direct contact. In this next phase, they will design a smart material that will respond to mast cell activation by releasing mast cell modifying drugs in a controlled manner. In this way, they will create a material that communicates with and responds to immune cells in a site‑specific and chronological manner.

In‑operando characterization of nanostructured energy storage materials

Nanostructured electrodes are critical to improved electrical energy storage but are challenging to characterize. Here, researchers build on existing strengths at the NRC and the University of Alberta by developing and integrating a suite of in‑situ characterization tools and then measuring, correlating, and explaining changes in nanomaterial properties during device performance. The project's aim is to identify and isolate technique (preparation and measurement)‑dependent properties from fundamental material properties in support of in‑silico research and commercial development of energy storage technologies.

Organic and hybrid photovoltaics: Computation‑ and machine learning‑driven discovery and optimization

Organic and hybrid perovskite solar cells are of enormous interest due to the high potential for low‑cost manufacturing of these devices. Both families of devices have great promise for solar cell applications, but face challenges related to materials choice and optimization, longevity, scale‑up, processing, and device integration. In this project, researchers combine machine learning and the predictive power of the suite of modern computational methods developed at the NRC with experimental design and device assembly to rapidly arrive at idealized photovoltaic architectures and compositions that can be promptly synthesized and tested.

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