Nanotechnology Initiatives


UAlberta and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) have a long standing nanotechnology research partnership. Called the NRC/UAlberta Nanotechnology Initiative, our collaboration with the Nanotechnology Research Centre islocated on UAlberta's main campus. Designed to expand Canadian nanotechnology expertise, capacity and capability, and foster breakthrough research, the Nanotechnology Initiative includes a $10M investment over 3 years for 9 projects aligned with NRC strategic priorities.

The next Nanotechnology Initiative call for proposals is anticipated in 2023. Visit NRC's Nanotechnology Initiative for more information or to sign up for updates.

Phase 2 Projects

Involve collaborations in key UAlberta's research focus areas that align/connect with NRC's nanotechnology strategy in:

  • biomedical nanotechnologies
  • detection and automations (especially nanosensors)
  • developmental and analytical microscopy

These three-year collaborations began Oct. 1, 2021.

Atomic scale manufacturing

UAlberta lead: Robert Wolkow | NRC lead: Jason Pitters

UAlberta and NRC have identified that some simple atomic circuits have immense commercial value. While some are proven to operate in a low temperature scanning tunneling microscope (LT STM), testing beyond the LT STM environment is needed. So too is additional research to advance the circuit elements and move them from LT STM to an independent test setup. These research areas include:

  1. Further develop atomic circuit elements (e.g., single electron transistors, gates, wires).
  2. Input/output strategies to connect the macro world to the atomic structures.
  3. Silicon preparation strategies for optimal circuit control and complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) integration.
  4. Circuit encapsulation for removal from vacuum.
  5. Tool development (linear scanners, lithography probes) to improve 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

UAlberta lead: Michael Serpe | NRC lead: Darren Makeiff

Gel based nanomaterials have attracted significant scientific interest small molecule encapsulation and release, and the ability to selectively adsorb and retain small molecules from mixtures. This project will design, synthesize, and characterize 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. This will involve new hybrid gel nanoparticles (nanogels) made of a chemically cross-linked, polymeric hydrogel network and a stimuli responsive physical hydrogel network formed from functional low molecular weight gelators (LMWGs). We will investiagte the ability of reversibly forming, stimuli responsive, physical hydrogel from LMWG to form an interpenetrating network in the nanogel's chemically crosslinked polymeric core. And will determine LMWG/nanogel’s ability 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 and other applications.

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

UAlberta lead: Michael Overduin | NRC lead: Joey Sheff

About 1/3 of the human proteome are membrane bound receptors that translate extracellular signals into normal cellular function. Malfunctions of these membrane bound "gatekeepers" leads to various disease states. Their localization in the cell surface is a double edged sword—they are ideal targets for antibody therapeutics, but their preparation and characterization are limited by stability/ solubility technical challenges. This project will tackle receptors involved in central nervous system disorders with new tools to develop targeted antibody based interventions. The long term goal is to scale use of patented new nanoparticle technology to develop therapeutic antibodies and drug leads as candidate therapies for neurological disorders, while providing deeper understanding of a growing array of critical disease targets.

Electrical properties of tubulin dimers and microtubules, and their effect on intracellular and extracellular functions: A combined computational and experimental study

UAlberta lead: Karthik Shankar | NRC lead: Sergey Gusarov

Microtubules (MTs) are building blocks of the 3D fine polymer network in living cells. They are polymerized tubulin dimers and involved in/responsible for cell morphology, intracellular transport, centralization of nucleus, chromosome segregation during cell division, chromosome motility after DNA damage, cell stiffness control, memory, etc. MTs are dynamic systems, growing and shrinking in a guanosine triphosphate (GTP) hydrolysis dependent manner. This dynamic nature makes them very susceptible to pharmacological agents for disease treatment. MTs also have exciting potential for cancer therapeutics, where they are believed to mediate mechano chemical interactions with the cancer cells’ MT network via the application of tumor treating (electric) fields (TTFields). In addition to TTFields, numerous traditional cancer chemotherapy agents target microtubules. Therefore, understanding how MT electrical properties affect ligand protein interactions is of critical importance for improved drug design and therapy. MTs are frequently modelled as 1D bionanowires that act as ion transporters in cells. B ionic transport in microtubules is poorly understood.

This project will investigate the electrical properties of MTs and their effect on intracellular and extracellular functions. Despite progress in use of computational approaches to understand microtubules, the lack of all atom models has impeded the understanding of tubulin’s complex role and its complexes in biological processes. Existing computational studies include no atomic representation of microtubules because of their large size. This project will address these limitations in modeling MTs and develop mechanistic models for TTFields action, and validate via modeling and experiments.

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

UAlberta lead: Frank Hegmann | NRC lead: Marek Malac

No compact laser light sources exist in the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) region. Compact EUV sources could lead to new tools in chemical sensing and pathogen suppression. EUV sources are critical in computer processor lithography. EUV photonics will enable compact and fast data processing and information storage.

Phase I, established leadership in study of materials for EUV and device fabrication; identified materials and physical phenomena that can be exploited to generate EUV light; and conclusively showed EUV plasmon existence in silicon, germanium and diamond using first principles calculations and momentum resolved electron energy loss spectroscopy (qEELS); and showed stability of these via high temperature characterization. In so doing, overcome various materials science challenges.

In parallel, Paul Barclay's team extended their pioneering diamond nanofabrication capabilities to include photonic crystals. These capabilities, developed jointly at the Nanotechnology Research Centre and UAlberta’s NanoFAB, are key to enhancing and engineering EUV emission to be pursued in Phase II. From a fundamental perspective, these devices provide a platform for probing EUV properties of diamond nanostructures. In the longer term, the ‘quasi isotropic’ etching technique the Barclay 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 will focus on device fabrication and characterization.

Quantifying nanoparticle evolution via in‑operando electron microscopy

UAlberta lead: Jonathan Veinot | NRC lead: Michael Fleischauer

Nanomaterials hold promise of making tremendous impacts in many sectors. 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. 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 access to powerful instrumentation positions us to lead game changing breakthroughs. We aim to demonstrate our capabilities with state of the art nanoparticle assemblies designed for improved energy storage systems and light emitting devices. For example, lithium ion battery potential is restricted by major challenges managing volume changes and understanding reactivity. Emerging lower dimensional materials like 2D van der Waals compounds (e.g., silicane, germanane, functionalized reduced graphene oxide) present a compelling route to 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

UAlberta lead: Frank Hegmann | NRC lead: Marek Malac

The goal—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 to understand the fundamental science of electron wavepacket control in THz fields and demonstrate proof of principle instrumentation. If successful, the 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, which 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.

Immunoglobulin E to target mast cell proteases in protein misfolding and neurodegeneration

UAlberta lead: Valerie Sim | NRC lead: Marianna Kulka

Prions are transmissible pathogens that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle, chronic wasting disease 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. While there are no treatments for these fatal diseases, there are some promising strategies 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. 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 recognize and eliminate pathogens in the gastrointestinal tract. We have already reverse engineered an anti PrP IgE and 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.

Phase 1 Projects

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.

Graphene in all-new nanodevice technologies (GIANNT)

This 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.

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

The project will investigate 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.

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 to targeting prions. They will test this 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.

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.

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.

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.

When physics strengthen 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.