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Talking nanotech with UMSL's George Gokel


Nanotechnology is the science of the very small.

Nanoscientists manipulate matter at the scale of atoms and molecules – often ending up with materials that behave very differently than their macroscale counterparts.

University of Missouri-St. Louis chemist George Gokel was recently named director of UMSL’s Center for Nanoscience. St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra spoke with Gokel about some of the research going on at the Center, and the future of nanotechnology.

GOKEL: The Nanoscience Center encompasses really quite a broad range of things, because nanoscience itself encompasses a broad range of possibilities. So we have people who are doing research that borders on medicine, and we have people working on things that border on materials science.

The new associate director of the Center is Eric Majzoub who’s in the physics department. And his interest and research effort is actually developing very high output, very low weight batteries for automobiles.

Hybrid cars are great, but if we could have batteries that were of low enough weight and high enough output, we could charge them up at home and really get some distance out of cars.

LACAPRA: What do you see as the most exciting future applications of nanotechnology?

GOKEL:  Well, I’m interested in the possibility of drug delivery and curative processes. Our own chancellor you may know is actually working with someone to develop what they call nanobombs. These are materials that they would deliver in proximity to a tumor, and then thermally excite. They would explode and destroy the tumor, but their explosion wouldn’t have such a deleterious effect on the surrounding tissue.

LACAPRA: Are there nanotechnologies that are already being used today that people might encounter in their everyday lives?

GOKEL:  Yes, there certainly are. People are talking about nanocircuits, for example.

There are many kinds of sensors that people are trying to develop, especially things that could detect say airborne toxins that could be put in the atmosphere by a terrorist, or airborne toxins for example in a hospital.

LACAPRA: So are those things that are already in use now, or that are under development?

GOKEL:  Uh, yes. Both of those, really. Many sensors are actually practical, and many are still goals.

LACAPRA: So we’re developing all these new technologies. A lot of people probably don’t really understand them or maybe don’t even know they’re out there. What about risks? What’s being done to assess and maybe regulate those?

GOKEL:  That’s a very good question. As with all new technologies and developments, there needs to be a close examination of what the risks are.

It’s just not known whether some of these small materials, if they get airborne, would have dire consequences. And if you don’t know how much is dangerous, you don’t know how to regulate it. And you can regulate it, but it’s foolish to regulate it unless you can actually detect it.

And so we’re working to try to figure out how to detect it, so that we can know how much to say you can’t have more than.

LACAPRA: Should we be worried? It sounds like the pace of our ability to understand these technologies or assess their risk isn’t really keeping pace with the rate at which things are being developed, new technologies are being developed.

GOKEL:  What’s really of concern I think as much as anything is during the manufacturing processes, as these things evolve, what’s the worker exposure. What kind of limits will be placed on these things in packaging. What limits will be placed on how they can be stored. Does temperature or light affect them.

And those have to be handled I think on a case by case basis. But we’re very much aware of those issues.