A team of engineers and scientists from the University of Cincinnati and the US Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio have demonstrated that a portion an algal enzyme can be used to create novel new silica materials with wide-ranging potential applications.
The team are said to have utilised a synthetic form of the active site of a key enzyme from the diatom Cylindrotheca fusiformis and used this fragment to create intricate silica patterns at the nanoscale level.
‘Nature makes these complex structures already,’ said Professor Stephen Clarson, noting the increased interest in using biological systems to build new materials.
Diatoms are tiny algae that typically produce silica shells. ‘They form these fabulous materials under such modest conditions,’ said Clarson.
The enzyme used by the diatom was discovered less than two years ago, but Clarson and his collaborators have already found a way to take advantage of the enzyme to create a new hybrid organic-inorganic nanostructure of silica spheres.
The specific device demonstrated by the team is a photonic system, which can produce ultrafast holograms.
Applications for these novel materials include new sensors and specialised goggles for the military, including improved night vision goggles.
Long-term applications of materials also include non-invasive cancer therapy, optical data storage and blue light lasers.
Clarson noted that the worldwide market for silicon-based polymers is currently $10 billion a year.