Scripps Researchers Develop Breakthrough Technology to Characterize Nanoparticles

New start-up company will capitalize on technology to see what can’t be seen using a traditional microscope

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego researchers have developed a novel technology for studying and characterizing nanoparticles.  This technology, called MANTA for Multi-sizing Advanced Nanoparticle Tracking Analysis, will be commercially available through MANTA Instruments, a new company formed by way of a collaborative effort among Scripps researchers, the Triton Technology Fund, and local incubator program EvoNexus. The company is located in the Golden Triangle area of San Diego. This collaboration highlights the ongoing contribution of Scripps to cutting-edge research, as well as the importance of such partnerships to the overall competitiveness of San Diego’s entrepreneurship industry.

Dariusz Stramski, head of the Ocean Optics Research Lab associated with Scripps’s Marine Physical Laboratory, along with his co-workers Kuba Tatarkiewicz, Rick Reynolds, and Monette Karr, set out to create a transformative device that would address the limitations of existing nanoparticle measuring tools—an instrument which would illuminate and detect smaller (dimmer) and larger (brighter) nanoparticles at the same time, hence allowing the researchers to accurately determine the concentration and size of all nanoparticles in a given sample.

In 2011, Stramski and his team received initial funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF award OCE-1126870) for their project, with additional support from Scripps Oceanography.  Now, after receiving support from UC San Diego von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center advisor and current MANTA Instruments CEO Rick Cooper, as well as the Triton Technology Fund, they hope to make their instrument commercially available through MANTA Instruments.

Understanding the properties of nanoparticles such as their size and distribution is useful for a comprehensive range of disciplines and applications, including medicine and pharmacology, environmental sciences, and various industrial sectors and consumer products such as cosmetics, inks, coatings, and food.

“Understanding nanoparticles is important to a wide range of both scientific and commercial interests,” said Stramski. “For example, nanoparticles suspended within the surface ocean waters can make a major contribution to the optical signal leaving the ocean, which is important to the study of the oceans from satellites. In medicine, nanoparticles are being increasingly used to deliver drugs, genes, vaccines, and diagnostics to specific cells/tissues. Having a capability to accurately measure the concentration and size of nanoparticles is of paramount importance to these and other applications.” 

A nanoparticle is any particle less than 1,000 nanometers (1 nanometer is one billionth of a meter), which means it cannot be detected by the human eye and is not amenable to detection by most existing methods for particle characterization. Current instruments can measure nanoparticle sizes or concentration, but no technology exists to measure both aspects simultaneously and reliably. This is especially the case when nanoparticles of different sizes co-exist in a sample; a common situation in natural environments and many other applications. 

“As part of the initial research work done at Scripps, we built up on existing technology and improved it. We have overcome limitations [of existing technology] by combining Einstein’s basic principles of random motion of nanoparticles in liquids with modern optical technology,” said Stramski, “Studying nanoparticles with MANTA is like looking at a clear, dark sky and trying to count and size all stars one-by-one, except that these ‘stars’ are in random motion. MANTA is the technology that can be used to deduce the size and concentration of these ‘stars’."

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