Prospectors did it more than one hundred years ago: They dug into the ground and sifted through river beds to find precious flakes of gold. Dartmouth senior Jonathan Werner-Allen builds modern-day prospecting tools to find not gold but proteins.
Werner-Allens research contributes to the Dartmouth Molecular Materials Group where faculty and students across the disciplines examine various aspects of nanotechnology. He makes thin films of modified nylon polymers. His particular challenge is to construct films only 500 nanometers thick. It would take 200 layers of this film to equal the diameter of a human hair. By adding amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, into the production procedure, he creates films made of nylon strands connected by amino acids.
I custom design the thin films with a particular amino acid, says Werner-Allen. When that amino acid is chemically removed from the polymer, the holes left behind will be specific to that molecular structure.
He explains that one possible use for his customized nylon films could be to detect small amounts of biological warfare chemicals. The trick is to increase the accuracy of such an application by improving the films specificity, and thats what Werner-Allens research addresses.
Im constantly tweaking the manufacturing procedures, he says. Attempting to insert different amino acids provides a way to measure a films specificity.
Joseph BelBruno, Professor of Chemistry, began working with Werner-Allen during the summer 2003 program of the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates.
Jon works in the lab like a grad student, says BelBruno. He has the insight to set up new experiments and a good feel for the implications of his results, which will make it possible to employ other kinds of polymers to detect other kinds of molecules. There is very little in the scientific literature on using these polymers as films, but with Jons work, the nylon can be an integral component of a chemical sensor, a long-range goal of our nanotechnology research.