While exploring ways of making nanotechnology affordable and easier to use, occasionally we come across a particularly innovative company. That's the case with with the Emerald Cloud Lab (ECL). I got a chance to talk with ECL's Head of Business Development and Strategy, Toby Blackburn.
Toby, tell us a little about you and your career.
I got my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at North Carolina State University and started my career at Biogen in cell culture, working on scaling processes from bench scale to manufacturing scale. I spent a lot of time in the lab during those years, but also a lot of time thinking about how to streamline and automate operations, and began to notice the impact that path dependency and corporate structures had on science. I eventually went back to school and received my MBA from Duke, moving into an Analytical Development function where I managed a large CRO budget and a team of analytical scientists. These transitions gave me the tools and opportunity to start implementing some of the ideas about how the execution of lab work could be better. After implementing significant improvements in lab execution, it was clear that there was an opportunity to further improve, but this would require a complete reimagining of the lab itself.
What drew you to ECL?
When I first visited our facility in South San Francisco, it was immediately clear that DJ Kleinbaum and Brian Frezza, ECL’s co-founders, had built something that addressed a lot of the laboratory execution problems I was seeing in industry. They had clearly rethought this lab from the ground up, considering all of the tools and technology available today, and came to the conclusion that a lab could operate completely remotely, and that there were inherent benefits in doing so. I jumped into the details, analyzing the capabilities of the ECL while considering the needs of a large biotech, and could not find any critical flaw in how the ECL could meaningfully improve enterprise level research and development.
On its website, ECL states that its mission is to “empower scientists to transcend the laboratory.” What does that mean in practical terms? Do you imagine a future where most lab work is done remotely?
I see a significant deviation between people’s perception of what a scientist does and reality. The common perception is that scientists spend their time thinking and designing experiments that result in very clear data. As most people who have spent time in the lab know, this simply isn’t the case. You spend a lot of time on the logistics of your experiments — ordering your materials and reagents, mixing stock solutions, scheduling time on an instrument, troubleshooting, finding samples, labeling tubes, servicing the instruments, sourcing new instrumentation, etc. — before you even get to your data. The wonderful byproduct of working in the ECL is that there is a clear separation between experimental analysis / design and experimental execution, returning all the time spent on lab logistics to scientists and enabling them to manage multiple experiments and projects simultaneously.
Suppose I want to run an experiment using ECL. From experimental design through data acquisition and analysis, walk us through a typical engagement. How much is automated and how much requires human hands?
You start with training, a guided tutorial conducted by our Scientific Developers, who are PhD level scientists whom we have taught how to program. The training sessions, which take a couple of days to complete, give you the basic skills needed to access and operate any of the 150+ instruments in the ECL.
From here, you’re ready to design your first experiment, which is made easier by our experiment builder tool, which allows you to point and click through sample selection and set parameters as if you were in front of the instrument. This helps bridge the gap between your scientific expertise and the programmable, scriptable language, called Symbolic Lab Language (SLL), that directly drives the execution of experiments. Once your experiment is set up, you press go and ECL takes over the execution.
Our entire lab is managed by software called ECL Engine. Engine can be best thought of as a lab traffic controller, managing all of the resources required to run your experiment and their physical flow through the lab. As far as automation, the ECL can handle readily automatable experiments, like using liquid handlers for a spectroscopy assay, as well as what would traditionally be difficult to automate, like pipetting or moving 2L bottles around the lab by using operators. We implement automation where it makes sense, and, in cases where there are redundant automated and manual functions, the scientist has complete control.
Once your experiment is completed, the data and metadata are collected in ECL Constellation. Constellation is a network of linked database objects that structures the data you generate into a highly organized knowledge graph, growing automatically over time as you run experiments. You can answer any questions you have about your experiments in seconds by surfing through your knowledge graph with a few clicks or keystrokes, or conduct searches across the full history of experiments run on the system — including your own data, any data shared within your organization, and any data published on the system. All of this data lives in the cloud, so you’ll never worry about sifting through loose files, emails, or thumb drives — your data is accessible from any computer with a secure login.
ECL Command Center provides over 4,500 powerful functions for data visualization, analysis, and simulation. The software also allows your experiments, data, analysis, results, and even scientific figures to be exported, shared, or published on the web. These tools can be accessed through a point-and-click interface or the commands can be directly entered into your lab notebook. This makes it easy to repeat or scale any analysis with a single command and to automate report generation through higher-level scripting.
What types of experiments and equipment is ECL currently equipped to run? What are you planning to add in the near future?
Our list of capabilities is rapidly growing as we bring on new instruments, so the most up to date list can be found here.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of using ECL as opposed to owning your own lab equipment?
From a purely lab execution standpoint, ignoring the enhanced value of the data network generated by ECL, some of the main benefits are flexibility, uptime, and integrated equipment maintenance. The diversity of equipment can provide scientists with options to work around an unplanned limitation of a particular technique. Our lab runs 24/7/365, so your experiments continue moving forward even when you’re not working. Lastly, our instruments run routine controls to ensure everything is working correctly, and equipment maintenance and troubleshooting are entirely handled by our team of experts, ensuring confidence in the output of your data without having to manage any of the logistics.
Because of COVID, much of the business world was forced to go remote, but that’s obviously difficult for most lab scientists. Have you seen an uptick in ECL usage since the pandemic began?
Companies are certainly re-evaluating their assumptions on how to manage business continuity for lab based employees as a result of COVID, which is an obvious value proposition of the ECL, and this re-evaluation is opening the door for people to see the additional value that the ECL can provide. For example, as we talk with enterprise customers, they are also interested in the ability of the ECL to be a central source of truth for their scientists who are spread across corporate locations, time zones, and countries. Startups are asking themselves whether they really need to build a lab, or even have offices, to get their companies going.
ECL is primarily focused on research and industry. Will there come a point when high schools and middle schools will be able to run labs remotely on equipment they can’t afford today?
I think that as ECL grows, and is able to take advantage of economies of scale, we will start to see opportunities to provide access to world class scientific instrumentation to anyone.
We have recently completed a pilot class at a large university, where students learned to operate Command Center and ran all of their experiments in the ECL, so that vision might not be far off in the future.
For the most part, humans are still doing the experimental design. Given how fast machine learning is progressing, is it realistic to expect that within the next 20-ish years, we could have something like robotic process automation (RPA) running a lab experiment from start to finish?
We have people working on the system today that are doing just that. Beyond fully running an experiment remotely, Command Center also contains the tools to automate your data analysis, script multiple experiments together, and program decision nodes about which experiment to run next, based on prior results. A straightforward example is using ECL to script column screening for novel compounds — you might not know the starting compound, but could programmatically step through a sequence of separations to identify what column chemistry and conditions work best.
This ability allows scientists to move up a layer of abstraction and manage entire workflows rather than managing each individual experiment. I expect that as the knowledge graph continues to grow, scientists will increasingly find ways to impart their decision making models into their experimental protocols, and continue to focus on the higher level work to direct where the science needs to go.
Last question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
Without a doubt, toothbrushing.
Toby, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today! If you'd like to learn more about the ECL, go to their website at www.emeraldcloudlab.com.
Earlier this year, I got to meet Jared Ashcroft and Billie Copley. Jared and Billie are Center Directors for the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC). Since they're doing a lot of exciting work in the the nano space, I invited them for a Q&A.
Tell us about yourselves. What are you passionate about these days?
JA – I am a Chemistry Professor at Pasadena City College as well as the Center Director for the Micro Nano Technology Education Center. My passions are in figuring out how we can increase passion and success in STEM classes using active learning pedagogies and in developing new academic pathways that allow students multiple opportunities to either transfer to a university or earn a certificate/associates degree and enter the STEM workforce. My focus is specifically on micro and nanotechnology technical education programs.
BC – I am the Micro Nano Technology Education Center’s Center Manager. I have been in the ATE world since 2011 when I started working for Deb Newberry at Nano-Link Center for Nanotechnology Education. I graduated from Dakota County Technical College in 2012 with my AAS in Nanoscience Technology. In 2018 I became the Project Manger of Nano-Link and in 2019 Jared asked me to come on board for a new grant he was writing.
Tell us about the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC).
JA – Pasadena City College, in collaboration with the Edmonds Community College, Portland Community College, and the Northwest Vista College, lead the ATE funded Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC). The MNT-EC connects existing micro and nano NSF ATE Support Centers, 2-year technical colleges, four-year universities, and non-profit laboratories in an effort to focus on the preparation of a nationwide workforce for the manufacture of micro and nano technologies. Each member of the MNT-EC brings their resources (such as cleanrooms, educational materials, remote operation of lab instruments) to bear on the development of a common curriculum for associates, certificates, and degrees for the micro- and nanotechnologies. The content of this curriculum will be informed by the knowledge-skill-ability needs of industry members. Included in center activities are opportunities for faculty to increase student engagement through distance education, community outreach, and professional development workshops and hands-on experiences.
The microsystems and nanosystems technologies are becoming, if not already, pervasive throughout the daily human experience. The internet of things is expected to support a trillion micro-nano devices. Examples of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) include pressor sensors, microphones, accelerometers, time-keeping devices, photonic devices, and medical instrumentation. The growth and convergence of these technologies will expand for the foreseeable future as the miniaturization and integration processes continues. A modern hi-tech workforce will be educated by MNT-EC educators to keep pace with these manufacturing developments.
With experienced ATE leaders from the Nanotechnology Applications and Career Knowledge Network (NACK), the Support Center for Microsystems Education (SCME), and the National Resource Center for Materials Education (MatEdU), among others partnering with the MNT-EC, MNT curriculum will be embedded in community colleges across the nation to increase the impact on and participation of their STEM faculty. Each MNT-EC partner will work with their local community to recruit and educate diverse students, increasing access and awareness to all students. The MNT-EC will increase the involvement of industry in the development and delivery of education elements by way of curriculum inputs and experts in the classroom, thus expanding the impact and scope of previous MNT-based ATE sponsored centers and projects.
BC – All of us here at MNT-EC are passionate and dedicated to what we do. Whether its materials, MEMS, nanoelectronics and applications, nanobiotechnology or photonics – we all love what we do. We have a desire to help faculty expand their curriculum or helping students see their bigger potential and overcome barriers. All of us want to make sure that the technicians and their faculty are prepared and excited about micro and nano technologies.
What would you say are the biggest challenges industry and educational groups are facing today, and how does MNT-EC help solve those problems?
JA – I look at the challenges from a community college perspective. We do not currently have enough MNT educational programs to fill the MNT technical workforce industry needs. We need to increase our programs across the country and come up with strategies to recruit students into our programs. As part of this effort we need to determine ways to make all students at community colleges and high schools aware that micro nanotechnology technician education programs exist. We must increase enrollment in the programs that we have as we are also developing more programs. This also includes outreach to future STEM community college faculty that can infuse MNT curriculum and programs into their school. We have lack of faculty, a lack of programs and a lack of students to fill industry needs.
BC – As a former student, I can tell you that the world does not know enough about our programs. I lived 15 minutes from the DCTC campus and never knew they had a nanoscience program until I went there to look into one of their other programs that was widely advertised. I think, for some, the word nanoscience or micro technology is scary. They think its PhD level stuff and that you have to be an A student in science to succeed.
We have to help the students and faculty work through that fear and realize that anyone who is willing to put the work in can be successful in our programs and get a good paying and highly rewarding job.
Likewise, I think industry needs to make the initiative to look around, learn about programs besides engineering and be willing to have conversations with their local community colleges. Sometimes I think people just get stuck in the mindset that they can’t have an impact on what is taught, when in reality it is the opposite.
In 2000, NSF predicted nanotechnology would be a trillion dollar market by 2015. It’s difficult to say whether or not this prediction came true, since nanotechnology is not a market by itself, but is instead embedded in so many industries. For example, a car company might use nanotech coatings on its vehicles, but Ford and GM likely wouldn’t think of themselves as nanotech companies. How do you engage companies that might not realize they’re using nanotech?
JA – This is another challenge we could mention above. Nanotechnology in and of itself is not always obvious. Creating a degree called Certificate in Nanotechnology may not resonate with industry. It is vital that we partner with industry and have them define what skills and standards a micro nanotechnology degree should entail. As part of the MNT-EC we are organizing a Business Industry Leadership Team (BILT). The BILT includes industry leaders that work with the MNT-EC to support creation of the Knowledge, Skills and Abilities competencies needed for an MNT degree. By engaging industry directly and having them be an active partner in center activities we will create a community that can create standards and programs that address each standard that industry needs competency in.
BC – Sometimes you have to go get their ear and ask them some leading questions. Never go ask them “what does a technician do here?” instead ask them “do your technicians work on the micro or nanoscale?” Or “do your technicians need to understand how materials behave at the micro or nanoscale?” You have to do your research and already know somethings about the company and then help them see where your technicians might be a better fit than hiring a BS, or masters degree to do the same job.
Nanotechnology was heavily hyped when I was in college in the late 90s. People created artistic renderings of tiny robots swimming around people’s bloodstreams and killing cancer cells. Obviously, nanotechnology is still a long way away from that, and I worry that over-promising might have jaded some people toward nanotech. (A friend even advised us to avoid using the word “nanotechnology”, because too many VCs have been burned by startups over-promising in the past.) When reaching out to others, would you say people are more excited or skeptical about nanotech? If the latter, how do you overcome that skepticism?
JA – This is a valid point. I also started in nanotechnology in early 2000 and the amount of grants or programs that used nanotechnology in their proposals was quite high. In many cases, the project or proposal did not really address “nanotechnology” issues. It is imperative that we define what nanotechnology is and what it is not. It is not a magic pill that will solve every science problem. There is not going to be a nano-based drug that cures cancer. However, like all science and technology, nanotechnology has applications in several industries. There will be future nano-based drugs, semiconductors utilize nano-based applications, materials science consists of nanotechnology materials. Increasing the knowledge of faculty, industry leaders and especially students what the foundation of nanotechnology is will lead to a better understanding of that opportunities are available in the field. We can use examples, such as an elevator to the moon and the targeted nano cancer therapy as our nano fantasies to increase student interest and engagement. At the same time, we can also show students how to use a scanning electron or atomic force microscope, how to do photolithography, or developing a Micro Electro Mechanical Sensor (MEMS) device and educate them on how they work. These are also exciting aspects of nanotechnology that are currently being used today. There are trillions of MEMS devices in society in all sorts of applications. MEMS alone is a $100 billion dollar a year business by 2024.
BC – Nanotechnology is an enabling technology that touches everything from food packaging and flavoring to cosmetics and textiles. It is literally found in just about everything these days. Got a scratch on your car – nanotechnology, need a heart stint – nanotechnology, want stain free pants – nanotechnology, need a better sunscreen – nanotechnology, want your food to stay fresh longer – nanotechnology, want your windshield to stop fogging up – nanotechnology. I think once people realize it’s a means rather than an end, they will get more comfortable with it. Also – the more connected people become the more they need to realize that micro and nanotechnology make that possible. Also realize that tiny nanobots taking over the world and turning everything into gray goo is really not going to happen.
Let’s say I run a small micro/nanotechnology company, and I have a need for technicians. Are there partnership opportunities with MNT-EC, and if so how should I reach out?
JA – We are always looking and excited to form partnerships with all MNT companies. There are several options. You can join our Business Industry Leadership Team (BILT). We have an industry working group that meets monthly to discuss MNT education and workforce needs. You can join either of these groups. We can be reached at email@example.com or e-mail Jared Ashcroft at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BC – Definitely email us –
Last question: If you had to hire a nanobot to do a job for you, what job would you hire it to do?
JA – If I could create a nanobot to embed in my brain that could make me always swing a golf club the same way over and over again I would be in heaven. Maybe on my backswing if I do it wrong a small shock comes to my arms and fixes the swing. Maybe I could start hitting long drives that are actually straight. This needs to be done. I will get my team on it right away.
BC – If I could hire a nanobot to do a job for me I would hire one that would take meeting minutes for all my meetings, so I don’t have to. That’s the least favorite part about my job. Of course it would take forever for a nanobot to write all those notes so maybe I should just keep doing them myself and have the nanobot keep my coffee hot.
Jared and Billie, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and good luck preparing the next generation of nano/microtechnology scientists!
We received some nice feedback on our Do Atoms Really Exist? educational kit. High school senior Kristen S. says,
“...wanted to update you on our progress and to inform you of the ridiculous excitement that I felt when we saw the wiggling particles.”
Sean Robinson, the Associate Director of MIT's Physics Junior Lab said,
“Oh, that’s a cool idea!”
With our first educational kit deployed, we're already working on our second. This one will be a small app that allows students to virtually run Millikan's oil drop experiment.
Modeled after a version of the experiment I did in MIT's Physics Junior Lab, Millikan's oil drop is a classic Nobel Prize-winning experiment. It should really be called, "How to MacGyver Your Way into a Major Scientific Discovery". Using some oil, a spray bottle, a couple metal plates, and a power supply, Millikan made the first measurement of an electron's charge and mass. Our version allows you to run the experiment virtually:
In this virtual experiment, you spray oil droplets into a metal chamber and try to measure their net charge. Once in a while, a droplet picks up or loses an extra electron. By charging the bottom plate with many "like" charges, you can push the charged oil droplet upward. If there's not enough charge on the bottom plate, the oil droplet will fall under the influence of gravity. With just enough charge, the oil droplet will levitate. By measuring the voltage at which the oil droplet levitates, you can determine the charge and mass of an electron.
We're looking educators and students to beta test our Millikan oil drop game. Are you a teacher looking for a fun virtual activity to try with your students? Are you the parent of a science-loving 14-18 year old? If so, contact us and we'll send you a free copy to test. We'd love to receive your feedback, so we can make this an educational experience all students will love.
That's all for now. Check back for regular updates as DNP123 pursues its mission of making nanotech affordable and easy enough for anyone to use.
Who's it for? Do you know a motivated student who wants to learn more than they're getting out of their science class? How about a teacher looking to introduce more engaging course material? If so, our kits are for them. Different kits target different ages ranging from middle school through college. Our first kit is designed for late high school or college students, though particularly bright junior high students may also benefit. If you know a teacher or student who might be interested, send them a link to our first kit, Do Atoms Really Exist?
What kind of kits do you make? All of our kits are focused on some aspect of nanotechnology. This could involve:
Are all kits virtual? With many areas struggling to contain COVID-19, we're making the first few kits virtual. Our first kit can be done all online. Teachers can defeat "Zoom fatigue" with engaging content as students safely conduct labs remotely. In addition to providing a good solution for pandemic times, virtual kits helps us keep costs down, so schools can afford them. All proceeds from these kits support DNP123's operations and research, which enables us to develop high quality nanotechnologies for both education and research.
While virtual kits have advantages, we know nothing can replace the tactile experience of actually being in lab. We're in the process of designing real experimental kits that can be done in a school or home lab. We're starting pilots of these experimental kits with a handful of schools soon.
How does it work? Find the virtual kit Do Atoms Really Exists? in the DNP123 Store. After purchasing the kit, download the electronic lab manual, problems and solutions, experiment and simulation videos, and 500 microscope images of real data. Learn motion capture analysis and track how tiny microparticles move. Use this to verify the existence of the even tinier atoms that push them around. Teachers can purchase the lab once and share it with their students.
It doesn't stop there! We want to work with you to make your classes engaging. Are there topics in science, mathematics, computers, or engineering in which you'd like to incorporate nanotechnology? If so, contact us and let us know what you're looking to do. If there's a good fit, we can help develop content that will keep your students eager to learn more and pursue STEM careers.
What if my school doesn't have money for a virtual kit? We don't want to leave financially disadvantaged schools behind. If your school would like to try one of our virtual kits, let us know through our contact page. We're happy to provide free copies of virtual kits in exchange for feedback that will help us improve future versions.
What's next? We're putting together more content for STEM classes, so check back every few weeks and see what's new. If you'd like regular updates, let us know and we'll add you to our mailing list. If you sign up, we'll send you a free PDF copy of the Do Atoms Really Exists? instruction manual.
We look forward to working with you to bring nanotechnologies from fantasy to reality!
DNP123 just completed its first Nanotech Design Competition. Teams were asked to design on paper a tool that can determine whether a given sample contains monomeric or oligomeric proteins, i.e. do the proteins show up one at a time or are they clumped together in a bunch. Differentiating between different protein forms is important, as certain forms can act as early warning signs for diseases.
We had many good entries. The majority of participants came up with a design solution that could at least feasibly be used to distinguish different types of proteins. This demonstrates a fact we hold dear at DNP123:
Anyone, even high school students who don’t yet have a ton of experience, can make meaningful contributions to state of the art nanotechnology, if they are given affordable, easy-to-use tools.
I’m happy to say that we had not one, but two winning teams. In no particular order, they are…
Winner 1: “Monomer/Oligomer Distinction Using Antibodies and Light Wavelength Measurement”
Team: Caleb Belden, Jonathan Percy, Evan Voogd from Norwalk High School.
This team designed a systems of nanocubes coated with antibodies that would bind to the proteins. The number of proteins bound would effectively change the radius of the particle, which they predicted could be detected using
Winner 2: “Separation of Monomer and Oligomers Through Magnetic Nanoparticles”
Team 2: Casey Spiess, Jose Cordova, Ryan Rafferty, and Mitchell Wood from Waukee Aspiring Professional Experience (APEX)
This team designed a nanoparticle crystal structure that contained gaps of a certain size. The gap size was just large enough to fit the monomeric form of the protein, but was too small to fit the oligomeric form. After trapping monomeric proteins in the crystal, they could extract them from solution by pulling the magnetic nanoparticle crystal out with a magnet. They could then detect any remaining oligomeric proteins using a variety of suitable techniques.
Congratulations to our winners! You’ll be receiving Amazon gift cards for your efforts.
 For example, check out this video to see how different forms of the protein amyloid beta are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
When you’re first exposed to nanotechnology, it can be difficult to grasp the immense difference in scale that nano-sized objects have. It’s helpful to think through the actual mechanics of how objects that size interact. For example, we use DNA linkers to bind DNP cubes together into useful structures. Just how strong are the bonds between DNA linkers? Imagine you’re playing a nano-sized version of the claw game, except instead of a mechanical claw, you’re going to lift objects with using DNA. It would look something like this:
How large of a DNP cube could you lift?
While there are many ways to bind nanoparticles together (e.g. covalent bonds, electrostatic attraction, hydrophilic/hydrophobic interactions, etc.), we typically use the stickiness of double stranded DNA. We do this by first painting single-stranded DNA on the cube's faces:
When two cubes get close, they will bind together to form double stranded DNA, if and only if they have complementary sequences:
Background. DNA is held together by hydrogen bonds and stacking interactions. At least a couple sources list the binding force of DNA as being in the piconewton (pN) range . Let’s assume the force required to break apart one of the short DNA strands holding the cubes together is 4 pN. The total force holding the cubes together should be proportional to the number of DNA strands connecting them. If you have 2 DNA strands binding the cubes together, it should take 8 pN of force to break them apart. If you have 3 DNA strands, it should take 12 pN. If 10 DNA strands, it should take 40 pN. The more DNA strands you have, the stronger the cubes will bind together.
How many DNA strands can you fit on the face of a cube? Clearly it depends on the size of the cube. Suppose you have a cube of length 10 nanometers (nm). The area of a single cube face would be 10 nm × 10 nm = 100 square nanometers. DNA is 2 nm wide, giving it a cross-sectional area of roughly 2 nm × 2 nm = 4 square nanometers . Assuming you cover the surface of the 10 nm cube completely, we should be able to fit roughly 25 DNA strands onto a single face.
How big is the force that binds cubes together? Since DNA has a force of 4 pN per strand and a 10 nm cube can fit 25 DNA strands on each face, the total force binding the cubes together will be 4 pN per strand × 25 strands = 100 pN. What if we use a larger cube? We can repeat the analysis above to estimate the maximum number of DNA strands that can fit on a cube face is
number of strands ≈ (cube length in nm) × (cube length in nm) / 4
Using this formula, we can see that a 20 nm cube can fit 100 DNA strands, a 100 nm cube can fit 2500 DNA strands, a 1000 nm cube can fit 250,000 DNA strands, etc. If each strand delivers 4 pN of binding force, than the total force holding the cubes together is given by the equation
total force in piconewtons ≈ (cube length in nm) × (cube length in nm)
How much does the cube weigh? In order to lift an object, you need to overcome its weight, or in physics-speak, the gravitational force pulling it down. The force of gravity pulling the cube down is equal to its mass multiplied by the acceleration of gravity, which is roughly 9.8 meters per second squared. We can calculate the cube’s mass by multiplying its density times its volume. The volume is simply the length cubed. We’ll assume the nanocube is made of silver, which has a bulk density of 10.5 grams per cubic centimeter. Combining these facts, we can write the equation
weight in grams = (0.000 000 000 10) × (length in nm) × (length in nm) × (length in nm),
Notice that the particle’s weight is proportional to its length cubed, whereas the binding force is only proportional to the its length squared. This means that as the cube grows in size, the gravitational force pulling it down grows faster than the force of the DNA pulling it up. Eventually, the weight of the cube will be too much, and the DNA strands will not be strong enough to lift it. At that point, the DNA strands will break, and the cube will fall. We can see that on a plot of force versus cube length:
We see that the gravitational force acting on the cube (green) grows faster than the DNA binding force (orange). The forces intersect at a cube length of approximately 2.4 meters. That’s an 8 foot long cube weighing 165 tons! Evidently, DNA is very strong if you have enough of them.
I should point out that for a real cube, the largest size that DNA can lift is almost certainly smaller than the result computed here. Nanocube faces are very flat, whereas bulk silver is rough and bumpy. When you stack bumpy cubes on top of each other, the bumps that stick out will be in contact with the other cube, but the dimples won’t be in contact with the other cube. Since the bumps and dimples will be larger than the short DNA strands, the strands located in the dimples will never reach far enough to bind with the DNA on the other cube.
 A piconewton is 0.000 000 000 001 newtons of force. For example, see Phys.org’s “Measuring forces in the DNA molecule” or PicoTwist’s “Forces involved at the biological level”.
 The cross-sectional area of DNA is more accurately described as a circle, but for an order of magnitude estimation such as this, the difference between the area of a square and the area of a circle will not be significant.
A colleague recently asked "What can you build out of DNP cubes that you can't build out of spheres?" We've always had a difficult time answering this question succinctly. Rather than answer in words, we're going to actually show you...by running a nanotech design contest!
You: Hey! What do you mean by "nanotech design contest"?
DNP: We want you to design a solution to a real-world problem using nanotech. We'll see who can come up with the best solution to a given problem.
You: How will the contest work?
DNP: It will run like a hackathon, except instead of programming, you'll be designing nanotech devices. We'll start at 9a EST on a Monday, November 11, 2019 and run through 11:59p EST the following Sunday, November 17, 2019. Prior to 9a on Monday, we'll email you a packet of materials including a description of a real-world problem that should be solvable with nanotech. Then you get to (1) design a nanotech solution on paper, (2) describe your solution in three pages or less, and (3) enter your three-page write-up for a chance to win.
You: Have you done anything like this before?
DNP: Not formally. However, while presenting our work at the University of Michigan, we did have the audience design "some cool nanotech device" using DNP cubes. In only 5 minutes, they were able to come up with a wide variety of protein detectors, drug delivery schemes, and other cool nano devices:
Fig. Sample nanotech designs created by audience members.
You: Who can enter?
DNP: Any team of 2-5 people. We're recruiting teachers and students, but anyone is welcome to enter.
You: Why should I enter?
DNP: Because it’ll be fun, and you want to solve big problems that will change the world!
You: Great! Where do I sign up?
DNP: There's an entry form below. To enter, gather 2-5 friends and form a team. Designate someone as the primary contact. (The primary contact is responsible for sending/receiving info for the contest.) Enter the primary contact's name, the email address where you'd like us to send contest info, and the names of all additional team members.
You: Anything else I should know?
DNP: To help you prepare, I'll make a few posts on this blog explaining the physics behind different nanotechnologies. This should help you prepare for the contest.
Interested in designing nanotech devices? Sign up today!
Check out Derek Lyons presenting on DNP123 spinout ExpresSeed at 1 Million Cups.