Mimicking nature on the nanoscale

Peter Schurtenberger wants to create specially designed nanoparticles that can instruct themselves. He is a high-level researcher and chemistry professor recruited from Switzerland, and is fascinated by the processes behind nature’s own ability to organise its smallest components. His aim is to mimic them.

Peter Schurtenberger LITEN

Peter Schurtenberger wants to create nanoparticles that could build complex structures in accordance with building instructions that are built into the components from the start. His inspiration comes from nature’s ability to get atoms and molecules to build structures.

Peter Schurtenberger makes a comparison with Lego bricks to describe his research project. Imagine a pile of loose Lego bricks that could organise themselves using a built-in manual in each brick. Without any help, the bricks would be able to build a Lego house.

“The aim is for the nanoparticles to build complex structures in accordance with building instructions that are built into the components from the start”, says Peter Schurtenberger, Professor of Physical Chemistry.

The inspiration for this research is taken from nature’s ability to get atoms and molecules to bind to each other and build structures, both in living cells and in substances such as metals. The idea is to create nanoparticles that reproduce the very specific way that atoms interact with each other and build molecules.The difference between genuine atoms and Schurtenberger’s nanoparticles is their size. Even if the nanoparticles are incredibly small, they are considerably larger than atoms and thus easier to study under the microscope. Because they are bigger they also move more slowly, which makes it easier for the researchers to follow the stages in the processes they are trying to study. These processes can take a matter of minutes or hours.

“With atoms, you can only take snapshots, whereas we can take films”, says Peter Schurtenberger.

The current research project, for which he has received a prestigious ERC grant of SEK 21 million, is curiosity-driven basic research; it is the result of a desire to understand how atoms move and bind to each other, and how nature organises large structures comprising tiny building blocks. However, there are also future applications, according to Schurtenberger.

One such area of application is in metallurgy, i.e. the study of how metals are produced. In steel production, for example, the material is processed at different temperatures, which makes the atoms in the metal adopt very specific structures with different properties. However, little is known about how the atoms move in the crystallisation phases that take place when the metal is converted into rock-hard steel. Peter Schurtenberger wants to use his nanoparticles to follow the process through these various crystallisation phases.

“If we can understand how nature builds its structures then we can start to mimic it. We could mimic atoms to make alloys or different types of steel”, he says.

Another area of application is manufacturing materials with optical properties, which makes it possible for researchers to control and use light in the same way as can be done with electrons in electrical circuits. In order to do this, the researchers need to create structures of the same size as the wavelength of light. Specially designed self-constructing nanoparticles could be used for this.

A further area that Peter Schurtenberger wants to explore using nanoparticles is how proteins and antibodies interact with each other and with cell membranes in the body. In the autumn, Schurtenberger and several colleagues at the Department of Chemistry received SEK 42 million from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation for this project.

Lena Björk Blixt

Photo: Gunnar Menander

Know your colloids

Peter Schurtenberger’s research field is called colloid chemistry. Colloid is a term used for particles ranging from nano to micro size, i.e. billionths and millionths of a metre. Colloids are not by definition made from any particular material – the term encompasses extremely small particles from all contexts, for example in our cells, in a salad dressing, in milk, fog and air pollution.

Peter Schurtenberger’s views on conditions for research

  1. Last year, LUM wrote about the dilemma of co-financing for large grants, for example those from the European Research Council (No 5, 2014). At that time, Peter Schurtenberger expressed his concern that the system has a negative impact on the University’s competitiveness. He still thinks it is completely wrong that the University does not provide funding from central level. “Lund does the complete opposite to other leading universities in Europe”, he says.
  2. From Peter Schurtenberger’s international point of view, the Swedish system of having to raise funding for one’s own salary is deplorable. It risks impacting the types of projects researchers in Sweden dare to undertake, which leads to less high-risk research and fewer discoveries and is unlikely to increase chances of a Nobel Prize. “I don’t know of any other country that has this system”, says Peter Schurtenberger.