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STEM SIGHTS: The Concordian who does 'big science' on a nanoscale

From diagnostic medicine to food safety, chemist Rafik Naccache zooms in on the future
March 14, 2017
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By Meagan Boisse

Pictured are test tubes containing carbon dots (light-emitting luminescent nanoparticles) with optical emission spanning blue to red. | Image courtesy of Rafik Naccache. Pictured are test tubes containing carbon dots (light-emitting luminescent nanoparticles) with optical emission spanning blue to red. | Image courtesy of Rafik Naccache.


Rafik Naccache
is an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the Concordia's Faculty of Arts and Science. He is currently leading a group of researchers on a quest to find the next generation of nanomaterials.

These chemical substances are developed to have qualities such as increased strength, conductivity and reactivity. Nanomaterials have the power to revolutionize a range of fields, from health to energy.

And, this research is all done on a scale 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair!


‘The nanoworld never ceases to fascinate me’

What result are you looking for with your research at Concordia? And what impact could you see it having on people’s lives?

Rafik Naccache: My group’s research focuses on studying the fundamental properties of materials at the nanoscale where we work on carbon and noble metal-based nanomaterial’s. We are also interested in how we can leverage our findings to engineer the next generation of nanomaterials.

This would allow us to design new technologies and improve already existing ones.

For example, in medicine the overarching goal would be to design a nanomaterial that can be used to rapidly harvest diagnostic information, target a particular disease or ailment and execute a therapeutic role.

In order to achieve this, we need to start from the bottom up working on the materials properties to understand the chemistry. It goes without saying, we are cognizant of the fact that safety is essential and is always at the forefront of questions we intend to answer.

Our hope is to contribute to the advancement of nanoscience in order to address some of the most pressing societal needs and positively impact people’s lives.

How does this specific image (above) relate to your research?

RN: A fundamental component of our research involves understanding how we can design nanomaterials and how we can tailor their physical and optical properties through a careful and interactive scientific experimental design.

In this image, we show carbon dots (light-emitting luminescent nanoparticles) with optical emission spanning blue to red. It is even possible to engineer nanomaterials that can emit infrared light, a light that cannot be observed by the naked eye!

We are also designing materials that can induce heat when stimulated with light, or that can respond to a radio frequency. This level of control is very important and often necessary if we think of advanced technologies.

We must, however, remember that there are different challenges and requirements in every field. As such, there is no room for a “one-nanomaterial-fits-all” mentality. We need to continuously work towards developing novel nanomaterials, which we can exploit to address current needs.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

RN: Working at the nanoscale can sometimes be challenging. We are working with materials we cannot see using the naked eye or even a conventional light microscope, so we usually require more sophisticated approaches. When we transition into the nanoworld, materials can behave quite differently and what we know about “bulk” chemistry may not necessarily apply! You usually need to tackle these scientific challenges using multiple approaches in order to reach your goals.

In which key areas could your work be applied?

Our research can find applications in multiple fields including energy, the environment, health and safety, as well as medicine.

For example, in solar cells, one can harvest sunlight to generate electricity. With respect to the environment, we can use these particles to capture contaminants and heavy metals in waterways.

As for health and safety: can we make sensors to be integrated into food packaging to detect the onset of spoilage or the presence of pathogens? Lastly, concerning medicine, we can think of designing novel imaging probes and drug delivery vehicles that are more powerful than the conventional ones currently used.

What inspired you to study this subject and to get involved in this field?

RN: I am a naturally curious person and as such I think it is fitting that I have chosen a career in research — specifically working in nanomaterials. The nanoworld never seizes to fascinate me. I thoroughly enjoy probing, discovering, learning and achieving a deeper understanding of things. I started working in the nano field during my MSc in Chemistry and I never looked back.

How can interested students get involved in this line of research?

RN: I would recommend that these students try to get involved in research. Find a researcher that is working on a topic that interests them and apply for a graduate degree, a summer internship or simply volunteer in their lab. The idea is to get direct exposure to this field and provide invaluable and tangible experience.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

RN: Concordia’s diverse and dynamic research environment! The University has placed a strong emphasis on research where we can do big science, even at the nanoscale.


Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

 



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