Networking for nanotechnology in Europe

A chemist by training, Dr Salvador Pané i Vidal is a Senior Scientist in the Multi-Scale Robotics Lab at the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems, ETH Zürich.

He specialises in materials science and particularly in electrochemical processing. Within his research group, his work bridges materials science with the world of micro- and nanorobots. Micro- and nanorobots are tiny, intelligent smart structures that can perform several activities or processes at small scales, especially in the biomedical arena, e.g. drug delivery applications or, more recently, environmental applications such as water cleaning.

Why did you choose micro- and nanorobotics?

My field is very interdisciplinary, involving engineering, control, robotics, micro- and nanofabrication, for example electrodeposition, corrosion, or biomedicine. My goal is to offer fabrication solutions for these micro- and nanostructures that would perform the functions mentioned above. If I need to build a micro- or nanorobot that will deliver drugs to human organisms, it will be wirelessly guided using external magnetic fields. So one of the things I am trying to do is build an optimal magnetic structure and, secondly, find out how to complete the puzzle so that this platform can thoroughly perform its task. However, in the case of drug delivery, a magnetic material is usually not biocompatible so I am trying to protect it by finding a coating that prevents corrosion and cytotoxic effects. I am also looking for other building blocks that will enable drug delivery.

What was it about drug delivery that caught your interest?

It’s not all about drug delivery. First, we need to solve a problem of motion, and then manage motion in the body. For instance, our group uses electromagnetic fields to guide these structures, which is why we need to find the best shape and material to overcome body flows.

I am passionate about the fabrication challenges behind drug delivery: adding a coating to a tiny structure and ensuring that the coating features the necessary drug dose to be delivered. It may sound simple but putting the pieces together is the difficult part. This could be relatively easy if done separately, but when you have to complete the puzzle you need to consider the synergy between the pieces. This is what I like about building micro- and nanorobots for drug delivery applications. The same in the case of a robot used for cleaning water. What drives me to study small robotics is solving this fabrication problem. It’s a matter of integrating everything but also a problem of fabrication.

How does the COST Action help you meet your long and short-term objectives?

A COST Action is an ideal platform, as it provides expertise sharing at EU level. Action “e-MINDS” covers a lot of objectives from my research area. For instance, we are now looking into building robots that could drill bacterial biofilms. There are a lot of Action participants experienced in making composites using electrolytes. Implementing electrolytes in abrasive electrode coatings applied to a very tiny structure is challenging, but researchers in the network could help me implement these coatings in my micro- and nanorobots. Others specialised in biologically oriented coatings could help me with the implementation. An important issue is that every structure combines several materials in the same platform, which is dangerous because corrosion processes can occur and micro- and nanostructures can lose their functionality. The Action features experts who help me find a strategy to combine these materials while reducing corrosion effects.

Can you enlarge on the challenges in your own research?

I want to make special robots combining piezoelectric and magnetostrictive features, and there are already other groups in Europe working on ways to build these materials. We could share expertise and build effective magnetoelectric micro- nanostructures for example. More examples could be nanowires – there are people experienced in making nanotubes with the same electrochemical fabrication techniques, so what we could try is build a micro or a nanotube and a solid nanowire in the same nanostructure.I think there are many ways collaboration within the community could help in – I could also open new research avenues, since my field is in its infancy.

How do micro- and nanorobots work in practice?

More research needs to be done here. The first step is building and combining all the materials. Then there will be a biocompatibility test, firstin vitroand then probablyin vivo. The effectiveness of all these processes will be validated after the biocompatibility test. The challenging part about putting all materials together is that it not only helps the biomedical arena but also other areas of research developing miniaturised devices. Combining several materials in an efficient matter does not only benefit my area but many other technological areas – miniaturisation is a common challenge. Electrodeposition and corrosion protection at micro and nanoscales are crucial for further developing these devices and for boosting technological development.

Micro- and nanorobots have many purposes. The first thing that may come to mind is a troop of patrolling robots during surgery. But researchers could also doin vitrostudies looking at how cells interact with tiny magnetic nanowires, or at how a mechanical stimulus modifies medical pathways. Micro- and nanostructures can also be used to differentiate cells in cancer treatment or sensing. For instance, our research group has created a film that can react with oxygen and detect the concentration of oxygen in the human eye, which is the cause behind several diseases. Such robots can be used in sensing for disease diagnosis, not only in localised surgeries and targeted drug delivery.

Going back to the COST Action, how did you decide to go for this funding and how did you set up the network?

It all started at the Pulse Plating seminar organised by Happy Plating in Austria where I gave a talk. People were discussing the idea of a COST Action to help against field fragmentation. I was also advised to network more intensively in order to keep the doors open. The transfer of knowledge in Europe is not as efficient as it should. Several researchers were in favour of a COST Action, thinking I would be the appropriate person to build and lead this Action.

What are your plans for the next year?

There are several challenges, so we will have to prioritise. We have to identify groups in need of guidance and connect them with groups that could provide answers to their questions. I am an example: I make abrasive coatings for small micro- and nanorobots. I would contact the people who can provide solutions for that.

I was recently asked if the Action could help fabricate miniaturised antiferromagnetic materials, which is very useful for certain devices (magnetic devices). So I thought I could make antiferromagnetic nanowires and help this person build these devices. There are millions of examples.

Since your field is in its infancy, how will the COST Action help you tackle the challenges in your research?

The Action will help bringing researchers together, with the necessary expertise to solve the problems. We can use EU tools or project tools – or COST tools such as short-term scientific missions – to solve questions, but the network helps both scientifically and strategically. Strategically, meaning that proposals can be written out of an existing need identified during the course of the Action, so the network would have to set up a consortium for a research project proposal. The COST Action provides the ideal platform for meeting people, learning about their expertise, which is key to building an efficient consortium. It is quite difficult to build consortia with people you don’t know, the COST Action starts the engine of building consortia.

Researchers in your network come from 10 European countries. Who are they?

The majority comes from research institutions (universities, institutes) but we also have people from industry and SMEs. I tried to contact companies potentially interested in the Action before even setting it up. Their response was positive and I expect them to benefit from the network. They are specialised in coatings and large pieces but they also want to expand towards micro- and nanodevices.

Europe needs to produce high added-value products. Right now, some EU companies are competitive and could take the lead in this field. Still, if we want to be leaders in the next years, we have to take a step further. I think producing miniaturised devices and being involved in the electrochemical fabrication industry can give a huge boost to European industry. I think that knowing companies’ challenges is crucial, especially if universities and research institutes are to work towards meeting these needs.

How does the Action help you coordinate your own research? You are an ERC grantee, also involved in an FP7 project.

Both the ERC and FP7 projects feature electrochemical fabrication as one of the main themes. As part of the ERC grant, I am making these magnetoelectric micro- and nanorobots, and I need expertise in miniaturising piezoelectric and magnetostrictive materials. As for the FP7 project, I am coordinating a FET Open proposal focusing on magnetic nanoprobes. We realised that combining certain materials – albeit the best in the application – sometimes fails due to corrosion issues. We need to protect these materials while keeping the initial functionality. We now had to go back to using a material that could be improved if we can solve the corrosion issue.

And this is where the COST Action comes in…

Exactly – there are people whose knowledge and ideas I can benefit from. This is the big picture of the COST Action.