Browse more profiles
Little Structures,  Big Impact
Little Structures, Big Impact


Matryoshka dolls famously decrease in size, each doll containing another, slightly smaller doll. Imagine opening Matryoshka dolls—one, and the next, and the next, and so on—the dolls getting smaller and smaller, but within each, another: 100 dolls, 500,000 dolls, 250 million dolls, at last you reach one billion. With each doll shrinking in size, finally, at the one billionth, this infinitely minuscule standby of Russian folk art has reached nanoscale. 

Derived from nânos, the ancient Greek word for ‘dwarf,’ the nanometer, one billionth of a meter, is many thousand times smaller than anything we can perceive with our own senses. Fantastically, it is also the smallest scale at which scientists have learned how to manufacture materials and structures.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) claimed that advances in nanotechnology will rival, if not surpass, those of computer science. Many developments in nanotechnology are coming out of the labs and research centers of the Oregon University System, including a promising new technology by Dr. Mingdi Yan, former Professor of Chemistry at Portland State University. Working to overcome challenges in materials science, Dr. Yan developed a kind of molecular glue capable of binding polymer, paint, glue, or adhesive to the surfaces of semiconductors, metal oxide, or metal at the nanoscale. With this molecular glue, scientists in the public and private sectors can quickly and easily affix molecules to the surfaces of materials, adding new properties and functions to their surfaces.

Given the usefulness and novelty of the nanotechnology developed by Dr. Yan, the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP) began to build a patent portfolio that now contains patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the European Patent Office. IIP also facilitated the negotiation of a non-exclusive license of Dr. Yan’s technology that led to its use in commercial applications by the Swiss company SuSoS AG, a manufacturer of high-performance interface solutions that specializes in the modification and characterization of the surfaces of materials people the world over interact with on a daily basis.

Whether on plastics, metals, ceramics, or glass, using the nanoscale coupling agents developed by Dr. Yan, SuSoS provides customers surface coatings only nanometers thick that can promote or decrease adhesion, add anti-fogging or bacteria-resistant agents, protect against corrosion, and repel dirt. Because the coatings are so thin, SuSoS can affect surfaces in manners requested by customers without changing the appearance and/or the transparency of the material they’re adding coatings to. With so many of the products we use and objects we encounter every day being made of metal, plastic, glass, and ceramics, the potential impacts of coatings such as those offered by SuSoS are nearly boundless.

Coatings can be applied to cars to keep the paint cleaner and brighter for longer between washings. The pistons in an engine or the gears in a transmission can be coated, increasing the lubricity of the parts and prolonging their functionality. In corrosive environments such as coastal regions, coatings can be applied to rivets, rebar and other construction materials essential in constructing infrastructure, or to the undercarriage of a car to protect against oxidation. Coatings can be applied to windows, windshields and mirrors making glass resistant to condensation. The bacteria-resistant coatings offered by SuSoS are ideal for surfaces in hospitals, research institutions, care facilities, restaurants, restrooms, and in food packaging where germs, bacteria, algae and molds can grow, posing health risks.

With just a few materials making up a big part of the world we live in, improving those materials will improve quality of life as well. But like anything, the materials we use every day: the plastic keys of our keyboards, the glass we drink from, the metal surface of a faucet or handrail we touch, are large-scale formations of tiny chemical bonds. Sure, we can shape and color them, combine them in different ways, but until recently we couldn’t improve their structures at the molecular level. With advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology like those developed by Dr. Mingdi Yan at Portland State University, companies such as SuSoS are beginning to improve upon the basic structures of materials we interact with.

Safer, longer lasting cars and bridges, hospitals and office buildings in which germs and mold are denied places to grow, solar panels and clothes dirt can’t stick to are but a few of the impacts of the partnership between IIP, Dr. Yan and her innovations in nanotechnology and the dedicated team of scientists and entrepreneurs at SuSoS.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted September 26, 2012