A team of UCLA researchers has received a $1.29 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation to explore low-cost methods of manufacturing fibers with unprecedented continuous metal nanowires — a material with potential for ultra high-resolution cellular electrophysiology analysis technologies that could conduct sub-cellular and intracellular measurements down to a single biological cell.

The principal investigators of the research team include Xiaochun Li, Raytheon Professor of Manufacturing and Chi On Chui, associate professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering, both of the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science; and Huan Meng, an adjunct assistant professor of nanomedicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

While there is a great demand for the high-volume production of fibers with continuous metallic nanowires, there has not been a reliable and scalable manufacturing method due to fundamental and technical issues surrounding their nanoscale size. This includes instability of molten metals during thermal drawing of the wires, and difficulties controlling wire formation using traditional manufacturing techniques. The UCLA research team will explore novel approaches to address these barriers to a low-cost, reliable and scalable nanomanufacturing process.

Current cellular electrophysiology analyses are used in high-volume, such as the development of pharmaceuticals, toxicity screenings, and threat detection. Using fibers with continuous nanowires as narrow as just tens of nanometers in diameter would enable high resolution analytical platforms, which could examine a single to few biological cells at a time. The resultant platforms could measure cellular events that, for example, indicate the presence of cancer cells, earlier than current technologies can. Specifically, the researchers and their students will explore theoretical materials and functional designs for nanoelectrode arrays; scalable nanomanufacturing of fibers with metal nanowires through thermal drawing; observation and characterization of nanoelectrode arrays; and development and validation of nanoelectrode-enabled cell-based assay platforms.

Other potential technologies for this include high-resolution semiconductors and metamaterials characterizations, and neural and cardiac electrical signal recorders.