Small Science, Big Discoveries: Nanoscience at the University of Guelph

Posted on Thursday, June 10th, 2021

Written by Michael Stuck, edited by Callum Stonehouse

Nanoscience research explores physical processes on the nanometer scale. At the University of Guelph, nanoscientists in the Department of Physics probe polymeric materials, biomaterials, and graphene on these incredibly small scales, providing unique training opportunities through cutting-edge work led by faculty members such as Dr. John Dutcher.

Dr. Dutcher’s path in physics has been driven by his curiosity to learn new things: “The beauty of science really is all about learning and continuing to learn new things; it’s what we should all strive for,” he says. Dutcher and his team are currently focused on two main research projects: the study of an organic nanoparticle called phytoglycogen and the study of polyethylene pipes used for water lines. 

Phytoglycogen is a nanoparticle that was isolated and purified from sweet corn by researchers in the Dutcher lab in 2006. The particle is made up of glucose molecules bonded to form what is called a dendrimer, or a repetitively branched structure. In this form, these molecules have very different properties such as unique bonding interactions with water[1] [2] [3]. For example, the phytoglycogen particles can absorb a large amount of water within the molecule’s branches, which yields a special state of water known as nanoconfined water. Since phytoglycogen is a complex particle, Dutcher’s team employs many complementary observation techniques to develop a comprehensive understanding of this newly isolated substance.

 adapted from B. Baylis et al)
Atomic force microscopy (AFM) height image of a single phytoglycogen nanoparticle measured in water corresponding to the contact point between the AFM tip and the particle; at this height, the nanoparticle appears featureless (left). To the right, a 2 nN deep AFM height image of the same nanoparticle can be seen, with the branching structure of the nanoparticle now visible. (photos: adapted from B. Baylis et al [4])

There are many potential applications for these phytoglycogen nanoparticles in areas such as medicine and personal care[5]. One exciting application is drug delivery, described by Dutcher as, “one of the holy grails of nanoscience.” The unique structure of phytoglycogen makes it attractive for acting as a transport system for medical purposes, particularly since it poses no threat of toxicity to the human body – enzymes just break the nanoparticles down into glucose, the chemical fuel for cellular function. “The thing that really gets me excited about the applications is the biomedical promise for these particles,” says Dutcher.

From drug delivery to our communities’ water supply, the Dutcher lab is exploring innovative ways to improve our world! In addition to nanopharmaceutical research, Dr. Dutcher is excited about applying his decades of experience in polymer physics to the use of polyethylene pipes for industrial and domestic water lines. This project is a terrific example of academic collaboration with industry, with the research funded by a Calgary-based company that manufactures and distributes plastic pipes in place of copper. Using infrared spectroscopy and infrared microscopy, Dutcher’s team analyzes the pipes and tracks what happens to them over time, using heat to accelerate the aging process. The team’s goal is to understand how the pipes behave when exposed to both water and air in order to assess their long-term stability[6].

 John Dutcher)
Images of a small crack on an inner surface of a polyethylene pipe collected at the IR spectromicroscopy facility at the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon, SK (top left). The variance in the IR data of images PC1, PC2, and PC3 differs from that of the surrounding pipe, suggesting that different aging processes occur near the crack. (image credit: John Dutcher)

In addition to leading a busy research lab, John Dutcher is the Director of the Nanoscience Program at the University of Guelph, which began in 2008. This unique major is closely related to the undergraduate physics program, but with a much greater laboratory/hands-on emphasis. Dutcher notes that because of this lab experience, “I have been able to hire second-year nano students and they are immediately helpful in the lab because they already know how to use all the equipment”. The addition of this program at the University of Guelph is a sign of growing interest in the study of nanoscience and nanotechnology that will only expand in the coming years. Nanoscience has the potential to help advance our world in fields such as health care, energy, and many others. John Dutcher and the Dutcher lab, as well as other nanoscience researchers at the University of Guelph, are always striving to make these advancements possible.

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