The Nanophysics department grew remarkably fast in the last 2 years focusing on research and support activities related to the design, characterization and application of nanocomposite materials, and to the design and construction of new technologically advanced instruments for imaging, microscopy and spectroscopy. The strong interdisciplinary approach of the department is facilitated by the whole IIT scientific environment, and aims to results at the best of the current international state of the art.
The final goal is to develop new approaches with high technological content, which can be addressed to human health and possibly transferred to the market: tools for nanotoxicology, neuro-tech implantable devices, new multifunctional materials (i.e. actuators, sensors and portable/converting energy), nanocarriers and scaffolds for smart drug delivery (actively/passively triggered), intelligent (bio)probes, implantable (bio)substitutes, early stage detections of diseases and “therapeutic” nanodevices.
So far, the two pivotal directions of Nanophysics department are: the nanocomposite (smart) materials research line and the development of technologically advanced devices and instruments. The first activity has a predominant material science character; it exploits our well established expertise in the development of hybrid multifunctional materials with emphasis on physics and chemistry of surfaces, bulk thermo/mechanical properties, electromagnetic properties of composite systems and interaction of biological molecules with carefully designed surfaces. The second one targets the design, realization and utilization of new concept devices and instruments towards nanometer-level investigations of living matter and materials, including the possibility of photo-nano-structuring.
Nanocomposite materials: from nanoparticle synthesis to 2D/3D materials (films/scaffolds)
The research approach is related to activities covering the full research chain from nanoparticles production to the development of new nanocomposite materials with tailored surface and bulk properties. We move from biological applications, using the nanoparticles as diagnostic (probes) and therapeutic agents, or growing cells on well designed nanopatterned surfaces, towards energy and transport applications by developing light-weight, functional materials with enhanced electrical, magnetic, mechanical and thermal properties. We used both inorganic and organic nanofillers (i.e. nanoparticles, nanorods, nanowires, functional molecules, monomers and oligomers) into polymeric matrices, or as additives into nanostructured, membrane-like, or non-woven materials. Therefore we realized new hybrid systems having, for example, tailored mechanical, electromagnetic, surface (from self-cleaning to superhydrophilic) and electrical properties. Substantial effort has been done in developing new strategies for the homogeneous dispersion of such nano-objects and the characterization of the resulting novel materials, to be used in:
- reinforced nanocomposites based on resins for aerospace and dental materials;
- sensing surfaces and polymeric wires for robotics;
- 2D/3D laser micromachining, patterning and scaffolding for model system investigations, prosthetic and lab-on-a-chip devices;
- light driven nanoactuators based on photo-nanocomposite materials;
- 2D/3D bio-chip patterned nanodevices integrated with multi-electrode array for both recording and stimulation of 3D neuronal networks and optical data storage devices.
We also focused on light driven “green” production of nanoparticles (i.e. silicon, germanium, silver, gold, nickel and iron oxide), on their high flexible functionalization - using pulsed laser ablation in liquid - and on their possible uptake in biological systems. Nanoparticles and nanocomposite materials have been characterized by means of advanced techniques aiming to validate and test their properties including working conditions: TEM, SEM, SPM, pump and probe spectroscopy, dynamic light scattering, dynamic mechanical analysis, differential scanning calorimetry, thermogravimetric analysis, nanoindentation, AFM advanced mechanical analysis (i.e. force modulation, friction force microscopy and nanoDMA), and advanced optical microscopy.
Novel technologically advanced devices and instruments: accessing the nanoscale from tissue/organ size to single molecule precision
Nanophysics is becoming a world leading group in the design and development of ultra high resolution imaging equipment from the UHV-STM/SPM to new generation super-resolution microscopes. Part of this activity has been carried out thanks to the agreements with leading companies in the optical (Leica Microsystems and Nikon) and scanning probe (JPK, Nanonics and Bruker) microscopy fields.
Functional (including chemical) and structural imaging with resolution at the nanoscale, under ambient conditions, can significantly advance our understanding of biological and physical processes at the molecular and nanoparticle level, for example, towards the elucidation of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and of lung cancer. The knowledge of molecular mechanisms is essential for early detection of diseases, to improve the efficacy of therapeutic drugs and to evaluate the real impact of nanomaterials and nanoparticles on human health and environmental safety. Moreover, in industrial production processes, the ability to reveal defects with nanometer imaging resolution is critical for robust quality control of industrial products, such as organic photovoltaic devices, antimicrobial textiles and functional coatings of biomedical implants.
Super resolution optical microscopy, implementing targeted and stochastic readout architecures, has been developed to improve 3D imaging of thick and highly scattering biological samples and coupled to atomic force microscopy. This allowed, for example, the investigation of in vivo mechanical-functional correlation properties during neuronal cell networking on nanostructured surfaces. Within the optical domain, we designed a compact harmonic phase-dispersion microscope (based on the principles of second-harmonic interferometry) and realized a prototype of single wavelength two-photon excitation/stimulated emission depletion microscope.
Other studies, conducted by means of UHV-STM/SPM revealed new structural and functional domains at the lowest perturbation level and highest resolution on super paramagnetic nanocomposite materials.