Journey to the center of the nanoworld

In all versions that the versatile Philip Roth published of the long conversation he had in 1986 with Primo Levi, the American journalist and writer expressed his admiration for the Italian chemist and thinker, survivor and essential testimony of the Holocaust. Roth gave him praise and words that distilled a humility very unusual in one who used to treat mediocrity with undisguised disdain.

Roth and Levi, both Jews, had met in London in April of that year, at the headquarters of the Italian Institute of Culture, at 39 Belgrave Square. Five months later, Roth and his then second wife, Claire Blooman actress for whom Levi admitted feeling devotion, they traveled to Turin and interviewed him for The New York Times Review.

The resulting portrait of Primo Levi was that of a chemical artist rather than a chemical writer. Scientific research, it is true, has a lot of trade. But also creative art. In the Italian version of that talk that he published The stampRoth said of Levi that he was among the most intellectually gifted artists of the 20th century.

Levi has been one of the writers who have best adapted to the environment that surrounded him. His vocation was scientific, but also possible. That is why he was the manager of a painting company. He Italian of Jewish race he adapted to survive Auschwitz for a year and, later, to tell it starkly, honestly and without presenting himself as a victim. I recomend you if this is a Manpublished in 1947.

Primo Levi was one of those kind of writers who know how to listen. From that ability to listen, one of the great books of popular science emerged, the periodic systemin which the reader discovers the world through chemical elements.

For some of these virtues, for his moral authority and for the impact he had on me, I decided that this column that is born today would be called “El Club de Levi”. And that’s how it would have ended if it weren’t aware that the readers of D+I – El Español expect their columnists to open windows to the latest in technology, research and opportunities to generate knowledge and wealth.

In this spirit, I propose a fortnightly trip through some of the frontiers of science, but from a special attachment to chemistry and the enormous possibilities that nanotechnology is offering in all imaginable sectors: from medicine to electronics, passing through practically all industrial activity, still myopic before the universe of advanced materials.

It is no coincidence, for example, that the so-called complementary plans of the Ministry of Science and Innovationthe eight major strategic areas in long-term research for Spain, include Advanced Materials together with Biotechnology applied to health, Quantum Communication, Agro-food, Astrophysics and high-energy physics, Marine Sciences or Renewable Energy and Hydrogen.

Imagine that journey to the nanoworld as an elevator ride from our macroworld to a tiny reality, invisible and only perceptible to Atomic Force Microscopes (AFM) or Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STM). To get to it, you have to go through the “micro” world, that of a flea, a hair, a cell or a bacterium, observable with optical microscopy. The nanoworld is that of viruses, DNA, atoms or subatomic particles. We cross the frontier of classical mechanics and enter the quantum universe.

The physical Richard Feynmanfather of this change of perspective towards the nano universe, summed it up in a talk he gave in 1959 and titled There’s plenty of room at the bottom” (There’s plenty of room down there.) “Why can’t we write the 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?” she asked herself rhetorically before the scientific community. Today there are already MOFs (metal-organic frameworks), new materials with nanoscopic pores that in a single gram have a storage surface that would cover 1.3 football fields. Balancing the size and mass of hydrogen or methane, those MOF pores, for example, could store huge amounts of these gases.

An example of good vision is that the University of Valencia has just entered for the first time in its history in the social capital of a spinoff. Its activity will be consultancy, production and distribution of this type of material. His name is PMA and it is led by the researcher Carlos Martí-Gastaldo and part of his team at the Institute of Molecular Science (ICMol) of the said university.

Only a handful of companies worldwide are dedicated to this very promising field of chemistry. It still doesn’t sound like much, it’s true. The same thing happened with graphene, known since the 1950s, but which did not become popular until the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics went to researchers from the University of Manchester Andre K Geim Y Konstantin Novoselov for his discovery of the technique to isolate this material.

Apart from those who think that the graphene phenomenon is artificially swollen, we must be attentive to the evolution of the companies that are dedicated to MOFs. giants like BASF or the pharmacist Merck, whose CEO is the Spanish Belén Garijo, are already strongly committed to it. How quickly MOFs are incorporated into industrial processes remains to be seen. But there are already relevant figures: the Spanish Nanotechnology Network integrates 376 research groups and more than 4,500 researchers in centers such as the Nanogune basque, the ICN2 Catalan or the IMDEA Nanoscience from Madrid.

In that other reality, on a scale of millionths of a millimeter, the properties of substances change and everything imaginable can be built in it, like a brilliant architecture based on Lego pieces that can be studied, modified and even programmed molecule by molecule. molecule. And, further, atom by atom. The key to chemistry is no longer so much to make molecules react, but to control them one by one.

This revolution, still unknown to a large majority, requires a change in the way of thinking and interpreting reality. A simple way to do it is incorporate the prefix “nano” to the areas of knowledge that are generated. It is no longer so strange to hear about nanomedicine, nanoelectronics or nanomagnetism. But get ready to listen to others like spintronics or magnonics, keys to the electronics revolution.

In various interviews recently published in Spanish media, including The Spanishthe Spanish neurobiologist Rafael Yuste, coordinator of the Brain project, announced a world ten years from now in which the implantation of biosensors in the human body capable of offering new technological possibilities to the human being will not be strange.

Before men like Yuste I propose that, like Primo Levi, they know how to listen. Among his most recent reflections, I am left with one that fits like a glove to the trip that I propose. Computing will not only allow any human being to expand their memory, multiply their calculation capacity or speak different languages. But also the dream of any scientist to imagine new molecules. And, with it, an entire artificial world. Welcome to Levi’s Nanoclub.

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Journey to the center of the nanoworld