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Science, Maths & Technology

Nanotechnology and paper batteries

Updated Tuesday 28th August 2007

Chemist James Bruce is excited by the ideas that come when scientists from different disciplines interact.

One of the big appeals chemistry has always held for me is the way it lets researchers like myself work on a wide variety of challenges and problems. After all, molecules and atoms (the Lego and Meccano for us chemists) are everywhere. They are the building blocks of our bodies, the planet we live on and universe we live in. Sometimes the solution to seemingly big problems can be found in the tiny molecular world.

I was keen not to become too specialised as a scientist and looking at the world from a molecular perspective has allowed me to avoid that. Of course I’m still a chemist, and my research is focused on studying how molecules can interact with each other, how they can assemble to form larger structures and how we can give these structures function. In essence I like making molecules but I also like making them do something useful!

One of the useful functions we can do is to make molecules act like chemical hands that can select another molecule and tell us they’ve done it. At the moment I make molecules that light up when they find their target and they are potentially useful in investigations as diverse as disease diagnosis and environmental analysis. As a result I get to work with biologists, geologists and biophysicists.

Working with other scientists from different backgrounds is always rewarding—they give you a different perspective on the same problem and you can always learn something new as a result.

When I began my research career, nanotechnology was in its infancy and certainly not the buzzword it is today. Its big attraction for a chemist is all the opportunities it provides to make molecules and get them to do something useful. Nanotechnology has suffered from a bad press in the past, due in part to some over exaggeration of its potential applications. This led to both fear and misunderstanding, but perhaps even worse, to a disappointment when nanotechnology didn’t live up to its early promise. The early benefits of nanotechnology are far more subtle, namely the way working in the field encourages scientists to think outside their box and work together to find the solution.

I’ve been reminded of all that by this recent article on the BBC website. The paper batteries are a good example of what nanotechnology is all about and what directions it’s going in. Of course the paper batteries may not be a practical alternative solution storing electrical power to conventional batteries right now but it’s the creative thinking that lead to their design that’s important. It may take years before these paper batteries power a car if indeed they ever do but they are an alternative approach to making batteries. Following it may not only increase our understanding but also open up new applications the researchers hadn't considered. Its part of the attraction research holds for a scientist like me.

 

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