While the wheel, propelled forward through force and friction, may have been invented by a cave man, imagining how one might be able to move the smallest object, a nanoparticle, in a similar way has been a complex process spanning years of research conducted by a dedicated team of physicists.

Assistant Professor Alejandro Manjavacas of UNM’s Astronomy and Physics Department, along with a team of three other researchers around the globe, is currently working on making this a possibility.

They hypothesize is that with more knowledge on how nanoparticles react with aspects of their environment, such as electromagnetic forces and light waves, they might uncover a way to control their movement and behavior.

Their research began in 2015, after a key finding in a past nanophysics experiment led them to understand that a nano particle, when placed in a vacuum with a hard surface, created friction.

Manjavacas and his team recognized that friction is in important ingredient in lateral movement, like that of the wheel.

“On an icy road, since there is no friction between the tire and the road, your wheel isn’t going to move,” he said.

Using that example, his team hypothesizes that friction created could allow the nanoparticle to move in one straight lateral direction.

Of course all of this is happening at an extremely small, or nano, scale. To give a frame of reference, a nanoparticle is between 1 and 100 nanometers, while a single strand of human hair is roughly 20,000 nanometers, a human skin cell is 30,000 nanometers and one red blood cell is 8,000 nanometers.

Because light waves are on the nano-scale as well, they interact with nanoparticles entirely differently than they do our life-sized world. Further knowledge into how nanoparticles interact with light could hold important facts into how we might improve solar energy.

Research into nanophysics can be beneficial for computer technology as well.

“Within a computer all the chips are essentially structured on this nanoscale,” Manjavacas said. Because modern computer chips are compromised of tiny circuits, having more control over these microscopic objects could open the doors for more efficient computer technology.

Another practical application of Manjavacas nanoscale research is a procedure called bio-sensing.

“If you go to the doctor for testing it takes time and a lot of blood,” Manjavacas said. With a better understanding of how various nano-sized molecules, like human cells and viruses, interact with light, a test can be developed to analyze even the smallest portion of blood for the presence of these molecules.

There are further applications to how this research might be beneficial to the health care system, as nanoparticles are being tested around the globe in targeted cancer therapies.

It has been found that nanoparticles injected at the sight of a tumor, then heated with electromagnetic forces in the form of a laser, were able to kill the tumor cells. Nanoparticles also increased the effectiveness of cancer drugs at the site of the tumor.

Early trials have already demonstrated this ability to cure tumors in mice.

“Of course, going from the mouse to the person isn’t so trivial. Trying these type of therapies on humans in the ideal final goal, but we would need to have a complete and perfect control of these nanoparticles,” he said.

While Manjavacas said the research is in the early stages, he does feel that it is a “new frontier” for nanotechnology down the road.

Hannah Eisenberg is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @DailyLobo.