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Nanotechnology can fight terrorism

There's a new warrior in the fight against terrorism, and it's not a well-trained soldier or a missile. It's a tiny object, far too small to be seen with the average microscope

By Mark Berry

 


Photo of researcher Ken Klabunde
Photo by April M. Blackmon.

K-State chemistry researcher Ken Klabunde, founder of Nanoscale Materials.

 

K-State chemistry researcher Ken Klabunde works with these miniature defenders, which are called nanoparticles. The company Klabunde founded, Nanoscale Materials, makes chemicals that turn deadly toxins like nerve gas into harmless chemicals.

"They are of use in protecting soldiers and civilians from chemical warfare and biological warfare," he said. "Since the terrorist attacks, a lot more attention has been focused on our company, mainly from the government but also from places like fire departments and those who would be a first responder in the event of an attack."

Nanoparticles have a variety of uses. Klabunde said the company is working on nanoparticles that would stop biological warfare weapons such as germs, bacteria and spores like anthrax. Nanoparticles could be used to protect crops and livestock against bioterrorism. They come in a dry powder, which detoxifies chemicals it comes into contact with. It can be sprayed, fogged or used in an air filter.

"They could be for the military, to protect from chemical warfare or it could be used in a hotel to protect from cigarette smoke," Klabunde said.

Nanoparticles are tiny. For example, one could fit as many nanoparticles into a grain of sand as one could fit grains of sand into a one-kilometer cube. They aren't made from anything exotic, but from simple salts like magnesium oxide and calcium oxide, better known as lime. It's their size that gives them such unusual properties.

Nanoparticles are bigger than atoms, but much smaller than objects we can see. It's at this mid-sized level where elements do strange things. Gold, for example, looks shiny and yellow to us. But at the nano-level, it turns purple. It's melting point changes and it forms crystals. Increase or decrease the size of a nanoparticle, and its properties change all over again.

"That's the whole key to why nanoparticles are so hot," Klabunde said. "These little particles change change their stripes with size change."

Klabunde said the nanoparticles do a better job of cleaning up toxins than larger chemicals, partly because of their small size. After all, a pound of sand absorbs more water than a one-pound rock, because the surface of each grain of sand can touch the water. Nanoparticles, with their much smaller size, are even more reactive. Nanoparticles also have a different shape than ordinary chemicals. Like a many-faceted jewel, they have many edges and corners that allow it to latch onto toxic chemicals and nullify them.

Military lab experiments have proven that the nanoparticles created by Nanoscale Materials work, Klabunde said.

The company has a small plant now, but it's not big enough to mass-produce nanoparticles. He said they plan to eventually build a factory large enough to be able to produce large amounts for their clients.

Klabunde started the company in 1995, with the help of Ron Sampson and the Mid-America Commercialization Corporation, based in Manhattan.

Klabunde, university distinguished professor of chemistry, is the company's main consultant. The company recently gained a new board chairperson, K-State alumnus Bill Sanford. Sanford started his own company, Steris Corporation, about 20 years ago. When he sold it recently, it was worth $2 billion on the stock market.

Nanotechnology is a new science, but it has already sparked predictions of what it will do in the next 10 to 20 years — computers that are driven by light, improved refrigerators and better batteries are a few. With the whole periodic table of elements to work with, Klabunde said, there are many possibilities for future chemical nanoparticles.

"Right now, we're concentrating on the chemical properties. That's where our expertise is and we'll do that for the next few years. If the company grows, we'll probably expand out into electronic materials, but we've got to focus on what we're good at right now," Klabunde said.

Spring 2002