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President's View Mail Class Notes Features



Finding Common Ground in Research

As science and technology become ever-more advanced, researchers increasingly are reaching beyond their respective fields (traditionally worlds apart) in collaborative efforts in search of novel insight and discovery.

At Rensselaer, a researcher and an alumnus are demonstrating how working at the nexus of biology and nanotechnology could lead to the tailoring of bacterial processes for a host of smaller, faster semiconductors and other electronic devices.

For more than 15 years, Ronald Oremland ’68, a geomicrobiologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., has been studying anaerobic bacteria that respire, or “breathe,” soluble salts, or “oxyanions,” of toxic elements, such as selenium and arsenic. He recently discovered that some of these microbes form distinctive selenium nanospheres, which each measure 300 nanometers in diameter, on the outside of their cell envelope.

Selenium, an element found in topsoil and naturally occurring in the human body, is used in photovoltaic and photoconductive technologies. It’s incorporated in many electronic and technical applications, such as semiconductors, photocopiers, and photocells.

Knowing little about what kinds of properties selenium exhibits on the nanoscale level, Oremland turned to his alma mater to enlist the help of Pulickel Ajayan, professor of materials science at Rensselaer and an internationally known nanomaterials expert.

“I thought it might be interesting to find out whether this type of selenium would be useful. As a biologist, I am not familiar with the various electrical, optical, and other properties of nanomaterials,” says Oremland, a Rensselaer biology graduate.

Ajayan and Seamus Curran, a postdoc working at Rensselaer’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at the time, found that the nanospheres exhibited enhanced optical and semiconducting properties. They also found that the nanospheres grown on each of the three bacteria studied were different from each other and fundamentally different from amorphous selenium particles formed by chemical means.

The findings of Ajayan and Oremland, and their collaborators, were published in January in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology (an American Society of Microbiology publication). Oremland is the paper’s lead author. A summary of the research also was featured the same month in the Editor’s Choice section of Science.

Rensselaer Magazine: Spring 2004
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