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Nanobiology for Low-Cost 'Green' Technologies

NanoEngineering professor Jennifer Cha
NanoEngineering professor Jennifer Cha

In her lab at the Jacobs School, NanoEngineering professor Jennifer Cha is employing biology to engineer the synthesis and assembly of nanoscale materials that will one day be applied to medicine, electronics, and energy.

"Bio-nanotechnology is a growing area," said Cha, who joined the NanoEngineering Department in 2008. "Within this area is a science that uses biology to assemble or make functional or technologically important materials for electronics, sensors, photovoltaics, fuel cells, batteries, and medical therapies."

Due to their unique electronic, optical, and mechanical properties, nanoscale materials have been heavily explored for various applications. However, devices fabricated from these materials have typically required expensive and environmentally unfriendly processes. Cha and her colleagues are trying to figure out cost-effective and green chemistry strategies for nanoengineering.

"For nanoscience to become technologically viable, societal and economic impact must always be considered. We're hoping that biomolecular systems will not only solve some technical challenges but will also allow us to fabricate functional materials from nanoscale systems at low cost and using benign chemistries," said Cha, who came to UC San Diego after a four-year stint as a research scientist at IBM.

One of the projects Cha is working on is for the Office of Naval Research to look for methods to engineer large-scale arrays of sub-10 nanometer materials for electronic devices. The National Science Foundation has funded another project for Cha's lab to develop flexible, cost-effective high throughput sensors.

"Nanoengineering is perfect for this kind of research," said Cha, who was awarded a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award this year. "We hope we can make an impact on society with the help of biology."

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