We need each other for bionanophotonics

“We have a lot of articles and promising results in the area of nanophotonics. This helps to ensure that our work is well known and cited internationally. Since 2015, our lab has been working in this area with Swiss Partners from ETH Zurich, this project is led by our colleague Mikhail Petrov. Our work has reached a point that now Germans from Marburg University are interested to work together with us in this area because of our optics background. In fact, for studying processes in living cells, together we can harness the full potential of nanophotonics in the future of biophotonics,” – explained Sergey Makarov.

Working with international specialists gives us an opportunity to work with these technologies, an example of which is the penetration of living cells with nanoparticles, so that they can carry out certain functions – for example, transporting medicine into the cell. Other examples of using nanoparticles are the treatment of cancer: when nanoparticles in a special protein “wrapper” are introduced into the body, they are deposited into cancer cells. Then they are irradiated with light, so that the nanoparticles enter diseased cells and literally “blast” them from the inside. Optics is applied in these cases, as it helps to establish what size and from what kind of material the nanoparticles should be made from to achieve their intended purpose, and also which lasers need to be used to irradiate them. Using similar techniques one can also open a microcapsule filled with medicine within a cell. This is what inspires Western scientists to research a number of optical effects which can be put into practice by using nanoparticles. Within this international arrangement, the Russian researchers are focusing on the optical aspects and the Germans on the biological.

According Sergey Makarov, it is evident from the current reality, that the area of bionanophotonics is an interdisciplinary field – it combines such global disciplines like chemistry, engineering, biophysics and laser physics. The complexity of the challenges facing humanity today requires the interaction of different scientific groups. To confront today’s problems with just one field of science like physics or chemistry is impossible.  

Dmitry Zuev

“One of the promising areas for interdisciplinary interaction is the creation of a rapid screening system. This became extremely popular after the problems with Ebola, when it was difficult to diagnose it in the field. Neither doctors could quickly identify the disease, nor could scientists quickly create a vaccination, as the work was carried out using standard methods. During our trip to Germany, we managed to reach an agreement on our joint work with the group from the Technological University of Karslruhe, working on the technology for rapid parallel screening. In this group, we have chemists and biologists, and they are very interested in our experience in the area of creating nanophotonic components. Given the complexity and important of solving this issue, our need for each other was very obvious,” – explains Dmitry Zuev.

The laboratory at ITMO is ready to help colleagues in Karlsruhe to create compact systems for medical diagnosis with the help of unique equipment from ITMO University.  In addition to medical applications, the developed technology could potentially be adapted for laboratory research in the field of chemistry, biology and ecology. The latter is particularly relevant in the case of industrial disasters, when you need to quickly identify a variety of pollutants. Employees of the Department of Nanophotonics and Metamaterials also have experience in the area of biosensors. Not so long ago, they had published work on the detection of ultra-small concentrations of substances, notes Sergey Makarov. Despite the fact that testing was conducted in laboratory conditions, it is already possible to say that such technology can be applied in airports.  To identify a potential perpetrator, even very small concentrations of prohibited or dangerous substances can be detected. Nanoparticles serve as ultrasensitive probes which once they have pinpointed a particular molecule, force it to glow brightly making it easier to detect. To make progress in such areas, interdisciplinary cooperation is vital, as are publications from Russian scientists in journals with a high impact factor.

Dmitry Zuev notes that due to having highly skilled scientists involved in these projects, issues with interdisciplinary interaction practically don’t occur; since the scientists are able explain to one another fundamental concepts about their area of science. But the ideal situation is when there are specialists that can become the connecting link between representatives of difference disciplines; like biophysicists – a combination of physicists and biologists. At ITMO University there is a strong optical school, and good chemical and biological laboratories. Therefore, in the University there is a need for a bionanophotonics laboratory that could work on a global level. One example of a biocluster device in a technical university in Russia is at MIPT, says Sergey Makarov, where physicists from different fields work together with biologists.

“Recently we published an article in Nano Letters and in Advanced Materials, dedicated to the field of nanophotonics. However now, using the skills of our foreign colleagues, we can advance in this bionanophotonics field much further. We have a separate dielectric nanophotonics headed by Alexander Krasnok. Also, biophotonics is one of the most promising areas where we can realize our potential. Now, it is even easier to publish an article with a high impact factor, when the research subject is a biological object” – says Sergey Makarov.

Setting a good tone at European Universities

Dmitry Zuev and Sergey Makarov also paid a visit to some long-time partners at Aalto University in Helsinki, to find out about new opportunities that may have arisen. One such example, a strength of Finnish universities is the so called Nanofab – a place that meets all ecological requirements in which one can work with semiconductors and nanostructures for nanoelectronics and photovoltaics. At the nanofab, “cut outs” can be made from tiny nanotransistors for gadgets and other equipment. Despite the fact that such production requires considerable investment, it attracts major companies from the IT industry. Firms and clusters are so actively using the Nanofab that this investment will soon pay off.  

Sergey Makarov

“Perhaps it’s unusual what we, as optics, have to do with our Finnish colleagues who are working with microelectronic equipment. After all, semiconductors and metals are useless for creating classic optical devices in the visible range. These are opaque materials. You can’t make window glass from silicon or gold. But in the field of nanophotonics, you can successfully create nanoresonators, the photons inside them are  “delayed” and resonate, they manipulate the direction of the light or just make it brighter. On the basis of these materials and technologies that are used in microelectronics, you can create a new generation of amazing optical devices. Therefore, working with Aalto University is very important to us. In face, what is happening in Germany, and in Finland with the Nanofab at the university sets a good tone, since without them it would be difficult to develop nanophotonics.” – emphasises Sergei Makarov.

Scientists themselves, thinking about the future of the laboratory, claim that Nanofab is needed at ITMO University, where innovation plays a paramount role. Such nanotechnological systems solve not only research problems but also help to prepare high class specialists for micro and nano electronics. Due to the fact that Russia is actively developing innovative import-substituting products, such specialists definitely will be in demand in the business sector, adds Dmitry Zuev. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the main visitors of the Nanofabrication Center are students who are already at the end of their bachelor’s study and can go and work in science-intensive production, which can often be arranged at the same center. It’s also important that if young people master the use of relatively simple equipment, then in the future they can work with science and more complex systems. In addition, Nanofabs are attracting industrial partners, who often are more efficient in outsourcing R&D of new technologies, rather than create a laboratory and select suitable specialists.  An excellent example of such an interaction is Dresden University of Technology, which has a partnership with AMD, who requests technology, and when necessary supplies required equipment. When the technology is given to the customer, the university still keeps the equipment and the trained personnel. Thus, there is a large and profitable mutual exchange, said the scientist.

Joint ideas with Aalto

As explained by the researchers, on the website arXiv.org, there is a prepublication of an article about how to improve solar panels using perovskite, a new direction in photovoltaics (PV). Professor Constantin Simovski from Aalto University came up with the idea to use ITMO University’s groundwork, in order to embed nanoparticles in the active layer of a solar cell, where solar energy is generated. It will be make it possible for light to remain for longer within the thin layer of the solar cell. Thus due to the improved absorption of photons, there will be a higher optical efficiency.

“The technology, which we are actively developing for our equipment, known as laser printing of nanoparticles, when each laser impulse knocks one particle deliberately, and in a specific location. The idea was to implement our latest nanotechnology in the latest perovskite solar battery. Work in this direction is still at a conceptual theoretical “what would happen if… “ level. Our colleagues have made calculations and saw that the effectiveness increased by a few percent, which is a lot for photovoltaics. This concept, I’m sure, will be implemented in the next couple of years,” – explained the expert.

Sergey Makarov also added that particle printing technology such as this, together with ITMO university, is owned by a few laboratories in the world. So developments on pervoskite battery will not have an abundant of specialists. A successful result is very much dependent on the speed of the joint technology implementation of both St. Petersburg and Finnish scientists, which will no doubt be successful.