Elucidating the molecular-level interactions between nanocarbons and biological membranes

The emergence of carbon-based nanomaterials (e.g., fullerenes, carbon nanotubes, and graphene) in the past two decades unleashed a scientific revolution due to their unique physical and chemical properties, such as mechanical strength, high electrical and thermal conductivity, and antimicrobial properties. The wide range of emerging applications of C-based nanomaterials (nanocarbons) (e.g., composite materials, electronic devices, and even consumer products) will demand accurate assessment of their environmental impact. Still, surprisingly little is known about the biological interactions of nanocarbons. In particular, a fundamental understanding of the interactions between nanocarbons and cell membranes, the first point of contact with an organism, is lacking.

The objective of this project is to use AFM-based force spectroscopy to provide direct, real-time quantitative measurements of the interactions between nanocarbons and bacterial cells. The proposed work will advance the state of the art by elucidating the biological interactions of nanocarbons in actual bacteria, a significant advance in view of the fact that most studies in the field have made use of highly simplified membrane systems (e.g., supported lipid bilayers) that do not capture the chemical complexity of real cell membranes.

The objectives of this PhD research project are as follows:

  • To develop new AFM experimental protocols to probe the interactions between bacterial cell membranes and engineered nanocarbons in aqueous media
  • To develop computational tools (i.e., Matlab or Python scripts) for the high-throughput analysis of experimental AFM data
  • To systematically investigate the effects of nanocarbon length scale, hydrophobicity, and charge, on nanomaterial-biological interactions
  • To apply nanoscale insights obtained through AFM towards the elucidation of safe nanocarbon formulations

Closing Date: 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

File Attachments: 

AC mode AFM image of E. coli
AC mode AFM image of E. coli

Principal Supervisor: 


This is a challenging and scientifically ambitious project, requiring a student who is dedicated and enthusiastic about asking, and tackling, fundamental questions. The successful applicant will have been awarded an undergraduate degree at the time of appointment (2:1 or above, preferably supported by an MSc) in chemical engineering, materials science, or a cognate field. Excellent oral and written communication skills in English, and strong interest in nanoscience are also required. Prior research experience in nanomaterials synthesis and characterization is desirable but not required. While the project is primarily experimental, good quantitative and programming skills are highly desirable. 

Further information on English language requirements for EU/Overseas applicants.


Tuition fees and stipend are available for Home/EU students (International students can apply, but the funding only covers the Home/EU fee rate).

Further information and other funding options.

Informal Enquiries: