When you think about Materials Science and Engineering, you probably think about polymers or metals, and even then about broad, unspecific usages like “buildings” or “plastics”. These classifications are’t wrong, but this field is also so much more. In every aspect of your life, there is some material that is integral to that task. Literally everything we touch is a material of some kind, so the field’s omnipresence is logical.
One often overlooked facet of the field that is still growing is materials for biological or medicinal purposes. These range from biocompatible materials for applications such as artificial hips or skull plates to biosensing applications, like the one I’m going to explain here today. The sensors I’ve been learning about are plasmonic metamaterials.
Before last week, I had never heard of plasmonic metamaterials. Quite frankly, I’m still not sure exactly what it means, but I need to learn. These materials are the subject of the summer research I’m going to be performing at Cornell University with Dr. Gennady Shvets. All that aside, why are these crazy things important? To the best of my ability, I’m going to try to explain it here.
Plasmonic metamaterials are special because they can focus light on a really small scale, and can be tuned to specific wavelengths. So if there’s a molecule that vibrates at 900 micrometers, for example, we could tune our material to 900 micrometers, and be able to use it as a sensor for that molecule. This could be useful especially for medical applications, where the identification of certain molecules could aid a diagnosis. This type of material would also be compatible with the best biosensing technologies we have, boosting their power rather than starting over from square one.
When biological proteins interact, they do bind with one another, but first they have to adjust their orientation. Traditional biosensing methods could recognize the binding portion of these reactions, but there is much more to gain in being able to visualize the entire process. We do have technologies that can see these reactions, such as Raman and Infrared spectroscopies, but these methods are not compatible with other tools that would be necessary. Plasmonic metasurfaces can see both binding and orientation changes, opening up a whole new set of possibilities.
So, why aren’t we using these technologies already? The field of plasmonic metamaterials is quite new, and crucial developments are still being made. Initially, it was believed that a larger material with these special optical properties could be produced easily. What has been learned, however, is that building a surface combining many individual metamaterials on a small scale can be incredibly efficient. It seems to be that within the next few years, significant progress will be made in this field, and I’m excited to be around to see it.
Until next time,