October 9, 2006
No Small Matter - Bringing science to the pub(lic)

The Mercantile pub was the setting for a discussion on the benefits of nanotechnology at the September gathering of the Alchemist Café. This month’s guest speaker was CSCB investigator Professor John Kelly from the School of Chemistry at Trinity College Dublin.

Photo of Professor John Kelly at the Alchemist Cafe
Professor John Kelly demonstrating gold nanoparticles
at the Alchemist Cafe

Equipped with a rack of colourful test tubes, Professor Kelly began his presentation entitled Does Size Matter? with the claim that “this may be the first time that silver and gold nanoparticles have not only been discussed but made, in a pub in Dublin”.

The Alchemist café is a monthly forum for debating and discussing important and interesting scientific issues in a more informal and accessible setting than a public lecture. This initiative was established by a group of science graduates in 2004 as part of the Europe-wide Café Scientifique phenomenon.

Topics covered in the past include controversial subjects as diverse as climate change, stem cell research, the human genome project, suicide, weather forecasting, and the use and abuse of cannabis.

Nanotechnology is a burgeoning science which promises to revolutionise medicine, electronics and energy production. Professor Kelly and his research team are active in this field and have developed methods for the formation of silver metal nanoparticles. These particles are roughly 1/5000th the width of a human hair.

One of the features of gold and silver nanoparticles is that they possess a range of quite unusual colors which are readily varied by adjusting the shape or state of agglomeration of the metallic nanoparticles.

Photo of Professor John Kelly displaying electron microscopy pictures of colloidal gold
Professor Kelly shows electron microscopy pictures of colloidal gold

Professor Kelly illustrated this shape / colour relationship with solutions displaying all colours of the rainbow and then showed the audience some electron microscopy pictures of colloidal gold. He was assisted by researcher Deirdre Ledwith who gave an on-the-spot demonstration of the silver nanoparticle synthesis.

He outlined how these properties of gold were first exploited by the Romans to colour glass and now have applications in diagnostic kits, detecting the sequence of DNA through colour change, antibacterial agents, medical devices and optoelectronics.

After a short break for the audience and speaker to refuel with drinks and some finger food, the floor was open for questions and discussion. The questions reflected recent media interest in all things "nano", including the reporting of the applications of nanotechnology  as a “magic bullet” approach to selectively target and destroy cancer cells and the marketing of “nano silver socks” which claim to eliminate foot odour!

The relaxed setting provides a unique opportunity for armchair science enthusiasts to debate issue topical issues and meet with experts in the field.

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