Research Fellows Directory
Professor Stephen Mann FRS
University of Bristol
In recent years, a new exciting field of science – nanochemistry – has emerged that offers many promises and challenges for society. Unlike chemistry, which deals with the ordering, rearrangement and properties of atoms principally at the molecular level, nanochemistry is concerned with the building of small-scale structures and assemblies that are usually less than 50 nm in size. One of the key aspects of these miniature structures is that they exhibit properties different from those shown by individual molecules or larger aggregates such as crystals, so there are new opportunities for developing specialised materials for applications in many areas of technology and health.
How are nanostructures made? In the world of technology, this is often an expensive process in which gaseous atoms or molecules are deposited onto flat surfaces in the form of small structures. The materials, which may be semiconductors or metals such as gallium arsenide or gold, respectively, are positioned on the surface by using masks that act like stencils to produce a specific pattern. In contrast, in the world of biology, nanostructures are produced from the “bottom-up” by chemically based processes that control the assembly of molecular-sized building blocks with high precision. Now, it would be a real breakthrough if we could learn how biology achieves this “spontaneous” construction of small-scale architectures because we would be able to prepare useful nanostructures simply by adding all the ingredients in one reaction flask and allow the system to build itself, rather than laboriously having to control the addition of the components one at a time. This is where my research comes in. I’m really excited about adapting the rules that govern the spontaneous assembly of biological nanostructures to pioneer new ideas and approaches for preparing useful small-scale structures in the laboratory. These materials will be non-toxic and environmentally benign, so they will benefit important areas involved for example with energy efficiency (industrial catalysts, adsorbents etc), and health care (sensors, drug delivery etc).