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NTHU Research Team Develops Ground-breaking DNA Materials Technology
The sensors that are an integral part of the Internet of Things and the solar cells needed for green energy may soon be made of DNA-based materials. A research team supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology and led by Prof. Hung Yu-chueh of the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Institute of Photonics Technologies has recently used DNA extracted from fish to produce photoelectric materials. The team has also developed the world's first light-sensing DNA nano-composite technology, which has been used to establish the only natural DNA material processing platform in Taiwan. It is expected that this new material will one day replace petrochemical materials and be used in optoelectronic components.
 
Hung said that due to resource depletion and environmental pollution, many industries are looking for ways to reduce their dependence on petrochemicals by making more use of bio-matrix-based materials, which have the advantages of being natural and sustainable. For instance, Coca-Cola has begun to use bottles made of a material extracted from sugar cane.
 
Hung said that at present most photoelectric components, such as sensors and solar cells, are mostly made of semiconductor materials, but few people realize that they can also be produced with DNA molecules. “In fact,” said Hung, “DNA is abundant and easy to obtain, yet its applications are just beginning to be developed."
 
Reducing costs and energy consumption
 
Hung said that the first step in the development of this technology is obtaining DNA. After the research team obtained DNA from fish eggs and fish milt, the DNA was extracted by homogenization, purification, alcohol precipitation, and other techniques. To make use of the unique properties of DNA, the team developed a series of new surfactants for modifying DNA molecules. They have also developed innovative processes which can be used in the manufacture of nano- and micro-scale optical films, optoelectronic components, and sensors.
 
Hung explained that DNA is like the host who is in charge of the seating arrangement at a banquet, and molecules are like the guests. Guided by the host’s double-helix structure and different functional groups, the guests automatically take certain positions. This feature can improve component efficiency and greatly advance research and development in such fields as laser technology and solar cells.
 
The team’s work on light-sensing DNA and nano-composite technology has been reported in international journals and other media. Hung said that this low-cost, low-energy technology has already received patents in the US and Taiwan, and that its industrial applications are currently being developed.
 
Starting from scratch
 
As a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hung mainly researched optical communications and high-speed transducers. After she began teaching at NTHU, faced with a paucity of research materials and instruments in these areas, she began to explore new research topics, and developed a strong interest in using DNA to make electronic components. But at the time nobody in Taiwan had done research in that area, nor did she have a background in DNA and material synthesis.
 
“For me, undertaking this kind of research really needs to start from scratch,” says Hung, whose daring approach has led to a major breakthrough. At the end of last year she won the Wu Ta-you Memorial Award from the Ministry of Science and Technology for her ground-breaking work spanning the fields of biochemistry, materials, chemistry, nanotechnology, and electrical engineering.
 
A talent for interdisciplinary research
 
In order to confirm whether DNA can be used as a material for making optoelectronic components, in addition to extensive reading of the related literature, Hung and her research assistants visited various labs in Taiwan, and also began conducting joint research with the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at Cambridge University and the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate of the United States Air Force Research Laboratory. She said that discussing problems with experts in different fields stimulates new ways of thinking.
 
Hung said that she is very grateful to her students who learned the techniques of extracting biological DNA and material synthesis by attending classes in the departments of Life Science, Chemistry, and Materials Science and Engineering. She also said that some of her students practically lived in the lab, in order to learn the latest research methods in various fields, which they then taught to the rest of the team.
 
Hung believes that one of the advantages of studying electrical engineering is that it gives you a solid background for doing work in various other fields. Furthermore, she expects that her ongoing cross-disciplinary research will give rise to additional innovations.
 
A research team led by Prof. Hung Yu-chueh of the Department of Electrical Engineering has developed the world's first light-sensing DNA nano-composite technology.

A research team led by Prof. Hung Yu-chueh of the Department of Electrical Engineering has developed the world's first light-sensing DNA nano-composite technology.



Hung (in pink) and her research team.

Hung (in pink) and her research team.

Hung’s research team has established the only natural DNA material processing platform in Taiwan.

Hung’s research team has established the only natural DNA material processing platform in Taiwan.

In the future DNA extracted from fish will also be used in the manufacture of optoelectronic components.

In the future DNA extracted from fish will also be used in the manufacture of optoelectronic components.

 

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