Using chemical structures of nanoparticles to organize more precise materials

Everyday we interact with and benefit from things unforeseen: nanomaterials arranged for computer chips, High Definition televisions, and automatic sensors like smoke detectors are but only some of them. In the age of technology where the smallest-scale matter can be manipulated to serve an intended purpose, nanotechnology is changing the way we travel, purify water, and treat diseases, to name a few. Dr. Mathew Maye, a materials chemist at Syracuse University, uses chemistry to prepare nanoparticles that have new compositions, optical properties, and energy transfer ability. His team’s state-of-the-art ability to control structure, composition, and properties of nanomaterials allows them to craft synthetic designs so that they can fine-tune properties, and create precise, designer applications.

The properties of materials change as they are prepared at nanoscale levels. Gold turns color to red, semiconductors emit bright visible colors, and materials like oxides (think sunscreen) see big improvements in reactivity. To alter these properties at the nanoscale level, Dr. Maye uses chemistry to prepare nanomaterials with precisely controlled sizes, shapes, and compositions, with an eye towards improving performance in catalysis, lighting, fuel cells, batteries, and solar cells. To accomplish this, Maye and his team first brainstorms and find challenges in the field, and then work out the new chemistry or nanoscience required. For example, when working in energy transfer, they synthesize the exact quantum dots required by using chemistry to tailor composition, structure and morphology. When working in bio-inspired self-assembly, they attach DNA to quantum dots to perform a programmed function. When preparing a new alloy at the nanoscale for the first time, they consider the historical phase behavior and reactivity of the precursors. By understanding and controlling all of these areas, Dr. Maye and his team can organize nanomaterials in very specific arrangements, allowing room for numerous different applications.

Dr. Maye and team’s current unique projects include:

  • Nanoparticles with stainless interfaces: Everyone has an idea of a stainless interface. When hearing the words “stainless steel,” one may think of kitchen appliances, or another may think of stainless steel jewelry. Stainless steel interface is widely favored because it stops oxidation, meaning it does not rust. For this reason, Dr. Maye and his lab are interested in making stainless nanoparticles, using the alloy layer that has a stainless steel-like composition. A highly unique aspect of this is that the same rust-prevention can be used to stop, or control  corrosion at the nanoscale. Current research focuses on preparing other steels at the nanoscale for the first time, and further harnessing similar steels as a synthetic tool. Suspended solutions that are visually similar to an ink, these materials can be bottled up and stored in the lab, are easily transferable into other fields, and may find use in coatings, 3D printing, catalysis, and chemical storage in the future.

  • Quantum Dots for Energy Transfer with Biomaterials: Quantum dots are semi-conductive materials that are exactly the same materials as those inside a computer chip; the only difference between the two is that quantum dots are very small and nano sized, typically 3-10 nanometers. At this small size, the energy level changes so that the material absorb and emit different colors. Typically, these colors are excited via lasers or bright lamps. However, the Maye team uses a very novel approach to exciting their dots. The team uses bioluminescent proteins, like those that produce light in fireflies, to excite quantum dots without the need for external light sources. Ultimately, the team hopes to create systems that maximize the light emitted for sensors and lighting devices.

  • DNA-mediated Self-Assembly and Drug Delivery: In biology, DNA is used to encode genetic information based on the sequence of the DNA, which it stores in a classical double helix.  Dr. Maye and his team use DNA instead to “self-assemble.” or arrange, their nanomaterials, like quantum dots and rods. By attaching short pieces of DNA onto the dots, they adopt the programmable reactivity of the DNA, that can be controlled by sequence, length, and type.  This allows them to arrange nanomaterials into predetermined structures and symmetry, which adds another control of the final properties. In an associated project, the team uses the DNA to encode and bind chemotherapy drugs, in hopes of increasing drug payloads at cancer sites, increasing efficacy and reducing side effects. These DNA mediated organizations of dots and rods will revolutionize sensors and optoelectronic  devices in the future, as well as lead to smarter nano-pharmaceuticals.

As a materials chemist, Dr. Mathew Maye is interested in relating the chemical makeup or structure of a solid material to its performance, and then devising ways to improve or change its performance. Dr. Maye satisfies this interest by leading a research team of research scholars, graduate and undergraduate students in the chemistry of nanomaterials. With the team, he develops new synthetic and processing strategies to prepare nanomaterials, like quantum dots, and core/alloy nanoparticles for applications in energy transfer, catalysis, and even "smart" or "biomimetic" self-assembly. This research is highly interdisciplinary, and the team uses an array of synthesis, characterization, and self-assembly approaches to prepare these new nanomaterials, as well as new imaging and spectroscopy tools to understand what they make. Dr. Maye is often inspired by architecture and design. For example, he never ceases to ask questions like, “Can we prepare a highly detailed blueprint of a nanostructure that's only a few nanometers large, and then use chemistry to produce that structure in an analogous way that skyscrapers are built?” “What is the fidelity of our approach?” “Can we control the nanostructure atom by atom, or molecule by molecule?” and “If we need a 90-degree angle between two nanoparticles, how can we achieve that?”

Outside of his research, Dr. Maye likes to exercise, read biographies and books on economics, management and self-improvement, and spend time with his wife and two small kids.

To visit his website, go to:

Department of Defense Presidential Early Career Award For Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award, 2010-2015

Sponsored by AFOSR

Technologist of the Year, awarded by Central New York Technology Alliance, 2013

DOE Gordon Battelle Prize, co-recipient, 2011

Goldhaber Distinguished Fellowship, Brookhaven National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy (05-08)

Department of Defense: National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG) (Chemistry, 2002-05)

Sponsored by the Army Research Office

"System and method for delivery of dna-binding chemotherapy drugs using nanoparticles."