Matchmaker’ portal matches MEMS customers, partners


The MEMS Industry Group, a trade association representing the MEMS and microstructures industries, has launched a MEMS Marketplace online “matchmaking” portal that enables MEMS companies to connect with prospective customers and partners.

The portal is designed for companies in the entire MEMS supply chain, from material suppliers to original equipment manufacturers. It also provides a networking forum for MEMS companies interested in collaborative or customer relationships. Users can search for specific products and services offered by MEMS device manufacturers, foundries, wafer suppliers, equipment suppliers, MEMS-specific software providers and market research analysts. Information is broken down into four search options: by category, product, company, and industry.

Participating companies can manage their profiles, update product/service listings, and post recent press releases by logging in to the profile management area of MEMS Marketplace.

Nano to fight flying fish? USGS seeks funding

Advanced BioNutrition Corp. and the US Geological Survey are looking to partner on a project to evaluate whether nanotechnology can control flying carp in Wisconsin waterways.

According to the local Onalaska Holmen Courier-Life, a USGS biologist asked the Lake Onalaska Protection and Rehabilitation District if it could test MicroMatrix, a product that delivers a range of bioactive compounds in animals and human foods, at its French Island facility to see if it will work with flying carp and other aquatic invasive species. The USGS doesn’t have the roughly $3 million it would cost to fund the first year of the three- to five-year study; while Advanced BioNutrition builds a working prototype the USGS can test, local officials are writing to congressional reps, fishing for funding.

Winners, losers in 2008 MEMS standings

Overall sales for the top 30 MEMS manufacturers inched up 2% in 2008 to $5.5B, held back in large part (and little surprise) to the global economic malaise, according to a recent report by Yole Développement. A closer look, however, reveals more distinct shifts and patterns among suppliers and product segments.

The top two suppliers, HP and Texas Instruments, both saw sales decline, but held onto their positions still by a wide margin. New No. 3 STMicroelectronics moved ahead of Robert Bosch, followed by Canon, and Seiko Epson (all separated by ~$16M); Freeescale came in seventh, with the top 10 rounded out by Lexmark, Analog Devices, and Avago (all separated by a small margin, ~$19M or <10% of sales). On the other end of the scale, Kionix and Micralyne entered the top 30 rankings for the first time; Delphi and Sanyo were bumped out. (Yole notes its rankings only include providers of silicon MEMS chips.)

Preliminary top 30 worldwide MEMS manufacturers based on estimated 2008 MEMS revenues.
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Top growth in 2008 went to Kionix (70%), with 18 of the top 30 MEMS manufacturers showing sales growth vs. 2008. FormFactor (-51%) suffered the biggest declines among the 12 firms who saw sales slide year-on-year.

The economic crisis was felt across the MEMS spectrum, but its depth varied among product sectors. Automotive was likely hurt the worst (-10% to -20%), though within this sector emerging devices such as tire pressure monitoring systems fared better than mature products, such as airbag accelerometers. And individual companies within sectors fared differently, too. Systron Donner sunk -14% to 13th place, and VTI lost -10% (in euros) attributed to a slowdown in the automotive market. Bosch, meanwhile, though it also suffered a -10% decrease, is better positioned with a new 200mm fab ready to start production when conditions improve, Yole surmised.

Consumer markets obviously were hurt too, but also varied by sector. Makers of ink-jet heads saw a -15% decreased in sales and saw units decline too. Inertial MEMS products, however, in general saw growth “in the range of several %), with STM and ADI pacing this sector. ST got a boost from a 42% (in euros) jump in its accelerometer business.

Other snippets from the Yole report:

  • Avago’s 2008 sales ($183M, #10 overall) don’t include the $38M (Yole estimate) attributed to Infineon’s former the bulk acoustic wave (BAW) filter business, which it bought in September – that would probably be enough to leapfrog #9 ADI. Measurement Systems, meanwhile, enjoyed a five-spot boost through integration of Intersema (in January 2008, adding ~$17M).
  • Boeringher Ingelheim microParts enjoyed 9% growth (in euros) thanks to the biomedical market.
  • Texas Instruments saw its DLP chip sales sink about 13% (in US $).
  • Panasonic (#16, $124M, up three spots) likely has taken market share in gyroscopes from Murata (#20, $86M, -4%) and SSS (#30, $30M, -14%), Yole says.
  • As for the two who fell off the list: Sanyo stopped its foundry activity, and Delphi “has dramatically reduced its MEMS staff,” Yole pointed out.

Editor’s note: Yole and SEMI will again publish their MEMS supply chain market report as a benefit for SEMI members, detailing key developments impacting equipment and materials suppliers, and the market outlook for these sectors.

MEMS sector takes hit from auto, economy slump

As the economy slogs along, big-ticket consumer purchases such as cars have dried up; shipments slipped 8% in 2008 and are expected to sink 19% in 2009. And that’s bad news for, among others, suppliers of automotive electronics, noted iSuppli in a pair of reports tracking the sector.

A notable casualty of the hurting auto sector are MEMS sensor suppliers, whose technology is used for applications such as vehicle stability control, airbags, and satellites. MEMS sensor companies saw sales decay more than the actual auto industry in 2008 (-6% to -15%). Industry leader Robert Bosch GmbH led the pack with $429M in sales (~80% of that for internal consumption in its automotive subsystems) and a -6.1% Y/Y decline (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Global automotive MEMS supplier sales.
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The strain on automotive MEMS suppliers has caused casualties. Systron Donner Automotive, the world’s second-largest supplier of car quartz MEMS gyroscopes (behind Bosch), was shut down by French parent Schneider Electric, laying off all engineers and leaving a skeleton crew to meet contractual commitments. “This is major turnaround for a company that sold nearly $105 million worth of MEMS vehicle dynamics gyroscopes in 2008,” noted Richard Dixon, iSuppli senior analyst for MEMS, in a statement. “The company was under competitive siege and already was beginning to lose market share at its key long-time customer, Continental, to Panasonic, which is offering a cheaper product.”

Meanwhile, Infineon has said it wants to sell off its Norwegian unit Sensonor to private investors. “The recent downturn [...] has especially hit the market for tire pressure monitors sensors (TPMS),” Dixon said. Shedding its unit “will help balance Infineon’s books in the short term and has little impact on its market-leading position.” Some process steps done in Sensonor’s site in Horten, Norway, will be merged with Infineon’s TPMS production in Austria, simplifying the supply chain, he said. “But the major impact is to Infineon’s capability to innovate, as the Sensonor group represented an R&D team par excellence.”

Government mandates for multiple MEMS-driven capabilities such as gyroscopes, accelerometers, and pressure sensors for tires and brakes have kept the sector from sliding any further. “In the past TPMS has been presented as the new El Dorado of the automotive MEMS market,” wrote Richard Dixon, senior analyst for MEMS at iSuppli. “Today TPMS is a US market due to a mandate that required fitment in all cars by the end of 2007.” He forecasts the auto MEMS sector will return to “healthy” growth in 2010, and double-digit revenue growth in 2011, as such systems will become mandatory on vehicles in the US starting in 2012, and in the EU starting 2014 (Figure 2).

Figure 2. MEMS market in US $M for automotive applications, 2006-2013.
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One key point about that growth hinges on what type of TPMS will be adopted. “Indirect” TPMS systems use an algorithm to model wheel rotation speed, this requiring only one sensor (which makes the system less expensive). Direct TPMS systems, now being employed in the US, use separate sensors inside each tire to detect pressure levels (and are more accurate, and expensive). The EU is still working on its regulations, and this point of which system to require is yet undecided; final regulations are due in November. “Much of the growth in the future market will hinge on whether or indirect systems can meet the accuracy requirements of the European mandates,” Dixon wrote.

Government mandates aren’t just key to growth in the auto MEMS sector, they’ve significantly reshaped the landscape of suppliers. “Taking a technology that has only been used in luxury cars in the past and putting it into every car, including those that cost less than $10,000, is a big challenge for the major established players in the MEMS market,” Dixon noted (citing as Exhibit A the Schneider Electric/Systron Donner shuttering).

Another key factor to auto MEMS growth is China, which is poised to become the global leader in auto production in 2009. “Unlike India, China is not a low-cost market for cars and there is a higher sensor content in the cars it makes,” pointed out Jérémie Bouchaud, iSuppli principal analyst for MEMS, adding that China also imports a lot of cars. Biggest opportunities are in power-train sensors; “safety is not expected to be the biggest driver in terms of sensor suppliers,” he noted.

NYU touts DNA-enabled nanoparticle glue

Researchers at New York University say they’ve created a method to precisely bind nanoparticles into larger structures that overcomes a “sticky” problem and enables creation of stable, sophisticated microscopic and macroscopic structures.

The work, reported in an advanced online publication by Nature Materials, describes confronting the problem of self-replication: when the number of objects doubles in each cycle it presents a linear challenge when trying to fabricate things microscopic objects with a sophisticated architecture.

Their solution? Coat micrometer particles with short stretches of DNA (“sticky ends”), each with a particular sequence of DNA building blocks; those with complimentary sequences form reversible bonds when a certain temperature is applied. Thus, the particles can be organized in a controlled fashion onto a template, and then released again.

The novel DNA ‘sticky ends’ can form intra-particle loops and hairpins (e.g. schemes II & III), giving more control over the particles’ interactions than conventional sticky ends that can only form inter-particle bridges (scheme Ia).
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DNA-mediated interactions are known, but binding only subsets of a particle (not the whole thing) into structures has proven difficult. So the researchers at NYU’s Center for Soft Matter Research and in the university’s Department of Chemistry focused on a particular type of DNA sequence that can fold like a hairpin and bind to neighboring “sticky ends.” Lowering the temperature, they determined, rapidly caused the sticky ends to fold up on the particle before they could bind to other sticky ends. This occurred long enough (a few minutes) for the sticky ends to find binding partners on other particles moved around by optical traps, thus building a structure (see video above). “We can finely tune and even switch off the attractions between particles, rendering them inert unless they are heated or held together–like a nano-contact glue,” said Mirjam Leunissen, the study’s lead author, in a statement.

Micrometer-sized particles, functionalized with self-protective scheme II sticky ends, are collected in a circular array of point-like optical traps. Relatively low system temperature gives good self-protection of the sticky ends and thus ample time to release superfluous particles from doubly occupied traps without forming unwanted doublets. Near the end of the movie, we shrink the array to bring the particles in close proximity.
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Potential applications include ordering arrays of these particles into optical devices such as sensors and photonic crystals. The same organizational principles also apply to smaller nanoparticles, which have a range of useful electrical, optical, and magnetic properties, NYU noted.

The work was supported by the NSF’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) program, the Keck Foundation, and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

Russian officials at odds over nanotech success

Recent media reports indicate Russia wants to better track its nanotech production, and is traveling the globe to press its interests and grow its position in the worldwide market–but a top government official isn’t convinced that current efforts are up to the job.

Nobody currently knows how much “nanotechnology production” there is in the country, pointed out Anatoly Chubais, the head of state-owned nanotech business group RUSNANO, which is teaming with the State Statistics Service to develop a tracking system. RUSNANO reportedly wants to help Russian companies win 3% of the global nanotechnology market by 2015 as part of the government’s drive to diversify the economy, according to the Moscow Times.

Russia isn’t just examining its own domestic capabilities. It’s proposed to pump at least $10M into Canada’s nanotech industry, according to a report by Canwest News Service; the investment could inject life into the sector, according to Neil Gordon, former head of the now-defunct Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, who told Small Times contributing editor Howard Lovy that the “Canadian government [has] ignored the massive economic development opportunity from nanotechnology.”

RUSNANO’s Chubais also reportedly was in Israel in March to deepen discussions about ways the two countries can cooperate in nanotechnology development, meeting with President Shimon Peres (a longtime nanotech-development advocate) and Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, reported the Itar-Tass news service. RUSNANO representatives met with Israeli scientists and businessmen last fall.

But Russia’s top government official isn’t fully on board with the idea that state-owned corporations are up to the job in nanotech. “[Rusnano] is the kind of instrum×ent that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t work at all,” said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, quoted by the Moscow Times. The group, he added, is a “large structure that has a lot of money and that still has to understand how to correctly spend it,” so that it is not blamed for wasting it in the future.

Ears have nanoscale ‘flexoelectric’ motors

Utah and Texas researchers have discovered what they call a “nanoscale motor” in the human ear: hair-like tubes atop “hair cells” that dance back and forth, acting as “flexoelectric motors” that amplify sound mechanically.

Previous research elsewhere indicated that hair cells (each ~10µm × 30-100µm) within the cochlea of the inner ear can “dance” (elongate and contract) to help amplify sounds. The new study by Richard Rabbitt, the study’s principal author and a professor and chair of bioengineering at the University of Utah College of Engineering, and colleagues at Utah and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, shows sounds also may be amplified by the back-and-forth flexing or “dancing” of “stereocilia,” the 50-300 hair-like nanotubes (1-10µm × ~200nm) projecting from the top of each hair cell. This flexing converts an electric signal generated by incoming sound into mechanical work (more flexing of the stereocilia), thereby amplifying the sound by a “flexoelectric effect.”

The tops of the stereocilia tubes are connected by protein filaments; at those connection points is an “ion channel” that opens and closes as the bundle of stereocilia sway back and forth. When the channel opens, electrically charged calcium and potassium ions flow into the tubes, which changes the electric voltage across the membrane encasing each stereocilium, making the tubes flex and dance even more. Such flexoelectricity amplifies the sound and ultimately releases neurotransmitter chemicals from the bottom of the hair cells, sending the sound’s nerve signal to the brain.

Cross-section of part of the cochlea, the fluid-filled part of the inner ear that converts vibrations from incoming sounds into nerve signals that travel to the brain via the auditory nerve. University of Utah and Baylor College of Medicine researchers found evidence that stereocilia–bundles of tiny hair-like tubes atop “hair cells” in the cochlea–dance back and forth to mechanically amplify incoming sounds via what is known as the “flexoelectric effect.”
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The researchers estimate the combined flexoelectric amplification by hair cells and the stereocilia atop them enables humans to hear the quietest 35-40 dB of their range of hearing. Rabbitt says the flexoelectric amplifiers are needed to hear sounds quieter than the level of comfortable conversation; the cells are said to be sensitive enough to detect sounds almost as small as those caused by Brownian motion.

The researchers’ calculations and computer simulations deduced that “a longer stereocilium was more efficient if it was receiving low-frequency sounds,” while shorter stereocilia most efficiently amplified high-frequency sound.

In addition, the researchers speculate that flexoelectrical conversion of electricity into mechanical work also might be involved in processes such as memory formation and food digestion. The stereocilia involved in amplifying hearing are similar to other tube-like structures in the human body, such as villi in the gut, dendritic spines on the signal-receiving ends of nerve cells, and growth cones on the signal-transmitting axon ends of growing nerve cells.

The study, part of an effort by researchers to understand the amazing sensitivity of human hearing, is published in PLoS ONE, a journal published by the Public Library of Science.

IMEC paves way to deep-brain stimulation

IMEC says it has created a prototype multi-electrode stimulation and recording probe for deep-brain stimulation, which beyond the medical applications highlights the opportunities in the healthcare market for design tool developers.

Brain implants for electrical stimulation of specific brain areas are used as a last-resort therapy for brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, tremor, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Conventional deep-brain stimulation probes use millimeter-size electrodes which stimulate a large area of the brain, “and have significant unwanted side effects,” IMEC notes. However, more precise stimulation and recording is achievable with electrodes as small as neurons built using semiconductor process technology, design tools, and electronic signal processing, notes Wolfgang Eberle, senior scientist and project manager at IMEC’s bioelectronics research group.

IMEC’s design and modeling strategy relies on finite-element modeling of the electrical field distribution around the brain probe (using multiphysics simulation software COMSOL); this also enabled investigation of the mechanical properties of the probe during surgical insertion and the effects of temperature. Results indicate that adapting the penetration depth and field asymmetry allows steering the electrical field around the probe, which results in high-precision stimulation. Another key was development of a mixed-signal compensation scheme enabling multi-electrode probes capable of stimulation as well as recording, needed to realize closed-loop systems.

A prototype multi-electrode stimulation and recording probe for deep-brain stimulation.
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The result of IMEC’s work is creation of brain implants consisting of multiple electrodes with simultaneous stimulation and recording. Prototype probes with 10µm-size electrodes and various electrode topologies have been built; the new design approaches also point to ways to achieve more effective stimulation with fewer side effects, reduced energy consumption (due to focusing the stimulation current on the desired brain target), and closed-loop control adapting the stimulation based on the recorded effect.

Ex-EPA official calls for new agency to oversee nanotech

Existing health and safety agencies are unable to cope with the risk assessment, standard setting, and oversight challenges of advancing nanotechnology–so J. Clarence (Terry) Davies, in a recent paper, “Oversight of Next Generation Nanotechnology,” calls for a new Department of Environmental and Consumer Protection to oversee product regulation, pollution control, and monitoring and technology assessment.

The proposed agency would foster more integrated oversight and a unified mechanism for product regulation to deal with current problems like toxics in children’s toys and newer challenges like nanotechnology. A more integrated approach to pollution control was necessary even before EPA was created, and since that time the need has only increased, according to Davies.

“Federal regulatory agencies already suffer from under-funding and bureaucratic ossification, but they will require more than just increased budgets and minor rule changes to deal adequately with the potential adverse effects of new technologies,” he says. “New thinking, new laws, and new organizational forms are necessary. Many of these changes will take a decade or more to accomplish, but there is an urgent need given the rapid pace of technological change to start thinking about them now.”

Davies served during the George H.W. Bush administration as Assistant Administrator for Policy, Planning and Evaluation at the US Environmental Protection Agency. In 1970, as a consultant to the President’s Advisory Council on Executive Organization, he co-authored the plan that created EPA. As a senior staff member at the Council on Environmental Quality, he wrote the original version of what became the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

MIT virus battery could power cars

MIT researchers have genetically engineered viruses to build both the positively and negatively charged ends of a lithium-ion battery, with comparable energy capacity/power as batteries in hybrid cars, and could also be used for personal electronic devices.

The new batteries, described in the April 2 online edition of Science, could be manufactured with a cheap and environmentally benign process: The synthesis takes place at/below room temperature and requires no harmful organic solvents, and the materials that go into the battery are non-toxic.

In a traditional lithium-ion battery, lithium ions flow between a negatively charged anode (usually graphite) and the positively charged cathode (usually cobalt oxide or lithium iron phosphate). Angela Belcher and co-researchers already had engineered viruses that coat themselves with cobalt oxide and gold and self-assemble to form a nanowire.

Their latest work extends the work by building a cathode to pair up with that anode. Because most candidate materials for cathodes are highly insulating (non-conductive), the team genetically engineered viruses (a common bacteriophage) that first coat themselves with iron phosphate, then grab hold of carbon nanotubes to create a network of highly conductive material. As the viruses recognize and bind specifically to the CNTs, each iron phosphate nanowire can be electrically “wired” to conducting carbon nanotube networks. Electrons travel along the CNT networks, percolating throughout the electrodes to the iron phosphate and transferring energy.

In lab tests, batteries with the new cathode material could be charged and discharged at least 100× without losing any capacitance; that’s fewer charge cycles than currently available lithium-ion batteries, but Belcher predicts “much longer” lifetimes. The prototype is packaged as a typical coin cell battery, but the technology allows for the assembly of very lightweight, flexible, and conformable batteries that can take the shape of their container. Future work will pursue better batteries using materials with higher voltage and capacitance, such as manganese phosphate and nickel phosphate, and from there look to improve the technology and processes for commercial production.

Catilin, Ames develop algae ‘nanofarming’

Algae as a biofuel catalyst is a promising field. Up to 10,000 gallons of oil can be produced on a single acre of land; the US Department of Energy extrapolates that replacing all the petroleum fuel in the US would require 15,000 sq. miles, less than 1/7 the area devoted to corn production (and just a tad bigger than Maryland). One of the challenges in creating promising biofuels from algae is that extracting the oil from the algae tends to kill the organisms. To this end, researchers at Iowa State University and the DoE’s Ames Laboratory say they have developed a “nanofarming” technology that safely harvests oil from the algae so the pond-based “crop” can keep on producing–and keep costs low.

The “nanofarming” technology uses nanoparticles to extract oil from the algae; once the algal oil is extracted, a separate solid catalyst from Catilin will be used to produce ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) and EN certified biodiesel.

Ames Labs, Iowa State, and Ames spinoff Catilin are involved in a three-year cooperative R&D project; phases one and two will cover the culturing and selection of microalgae as well as development of the specific nanoparticle-based extraction of algal oil, and catalyst technologies for production of biodiesel. Phase three will focus on scale-up of the catalyst and pilot plant testing on conversion to biodiesel.

Stanford sets new record for smallest letters

A novel technique is enabling Stanford researchers to push individual molecules into specifically arranged patterns, and reclaim their title of producers of the world’s smallest letters.

The researchers encoded 35 bits of information per electron and wrote the letters “S” and “U” (of course) composed of 0.3nm bits, a feat that edges out researchers at Japan’s Hitachi, who in 1991 set the record for microscopic calligraphy by chiseling 1.5nm-tall letters into a crystal. The demonstration suggests information could be stored more densely providing greater speed and storage capacity for modern computers.

Using a scanning tunneling microscope, researchers Hari Manoharan and Christopher Moon arranged individual carbon monoxide molecules on a copper surface in a complicated 2D pattern with a void in the middle, into which was projected electronic versions of the letters. The constant flow of electrons naturally present on the copper surface scattered any carbon monoxide molecules and worked to project holographic patterns of the letters into the void. Essentially, the pattern functioned as a molecular hologram, illuminated with electrons instead of light, they claim.

Molecular holograms are fashioned with scanning tunneling microscope manipulation. When illuminated by two-dimensional electron gas, a three-dimensional holographic projection is created.
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“Imagine the copper as a very shallow pool of water into which we put some rocks [the carbon monoxide molecules],” said Manoharan, in a statement. “The water waves scatter and interfere off the rocks, making well-defined standing wave patterns.” If the rocks are positioned just right, the wave patterns will form into letters.

The research, supported by the National Science Foundation, the DoE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Science, the Office of Naval Research, and the Stanford-IBM Center for Probing the Nanoscale, was published online in Nature Nanotechnology.

Gold nanoparticles could ‘cook’ cancer cells

Researchers presenting at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting in March, and in Clinical Cancer Research in February, described an advance in the nanotech-enabled fight against cancer: the first hollow gold nanospheres that can search out and “cook” cancer cells, showing particular promise as a minimally invasive future treatment for malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.

The nanospheres are equipped with a special “peptide” to a protein receptor abundant in melanoma cells, which draws the spheres to the cancer cells while avoiding healthy skin cells. After collecting inside the cancer the nanospheres heat up when exposed to near-infrared light. Studies in mice showed the hollow gold nanospheres did 8× more damage to skin tumors than the same nanospheres without the targeting peptides.

“It’s basically like putting a cancer cell in hot water and boiling it to death. The more heat the metal nanospheres generate, the better,” explained study co-author Jin Zhang, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California in Santa Cruz, in a statement. Zhang’s team worked with Chun Li at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Transmission electron microscope images, showing (A) hollow gold nanospheres with average size of ~30nm, and (B) an individual hollow gold nanosphere with diameter 29.1nm and wall thickness ~5nm. (Image courtesy of Jin Zhang)
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This form of cancer therapy is a variation of photothermal ablation (photoablation therapy or PAT), a technique that uses light to burn tumors–but also can destroy healthy skin cells, so it requires careful control of duration and intensity. Applying a light absorbing material such as metal nanoparticles to the tumor greatly enhances the PAT treatment, but ideal candidates must have both good penetration into the cells and limited heat-carrying capacity. Solid gold nanoparticles and nanorods don’t possess both qualities; Zhang’s creation in 2006 of gold nanoshells (30-50nm in size) did, and were safer than other metal nanoparticles, he noted.

Li emphasized, though, that the next step is human trials, which will require “extensive preclinical toxicity studies,” and that “there is a long way to go before it can be put into clinical practice.”