Nanoscience: Big Interest in Studying the Very Small

Sue Vorenberg
Scripps Howard News Service
August 22, 2002
Nobody knows what the Incredible Shrinking Man saw when he disappeared
from view, but the U.S. Department of Energy wants to find out.

The agency is building five nanoscience facilities across the country that will study the science of the very small.

Nanoscience investigates interactions, reactions, and construction of materials the size of atoms and molecules. And, it turns out, the Incredible Shrinking Man—made famous in a 1957 science-fiction film—would have been quite surprised by what that tiny world looks like.

"Materials behave very differently on a nano scale," said Don Parkin, associate director of the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, which will be operated by Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories in New Mexico.

"If you bend a wire, it works fine until you get it to a smaller and smaller scale," Parkin explained. "Eventually you find you can't bend it anymore. Its size determines how it works.

"The same is true for other materials," he added. "When you make them smaller and smaller, sometimes the properties you're used to don't work anymore."

Different kinds of metals and other materials typically deform because of defects in the way their molecules are put together. Using tiny machines and microscopes to build materials from the atomic scale up, scientists can remove those defects and make much stronger metals, Parkin said.

"We care about how materials survive over a long period of time and why they break down," said Terry Michalske, director of the center, which will start limited operations next year. "We could develop a stronger structure with no defects in it. We also want to develop materials that can fix themselves."

Using a combination of chemistry and physics, scientists are exploring the possibility of materials that will automatically seal defects, Michalske said.

For example, using nanoscience, a molecular coating might be created on an iron pole that would instantly detect when it started to rust, and then seal and repair the damage.

"We can really do things we can't imagine right now," Michalske said. "There's a real excitement around this field because of the opportunities. It reaches into new medicines and health care, engineering. Some say every aspect of our lives will be affected."

The labs have worked with nanoscience on a limited scale for about 20 years. But the centers will let them increase the amount of research so that new products might appear much faster, although most applications are still many years away, Michalske said.

One recent nanoscience discovery at Sandia is that scientists can take atoms and build silicon crystals that are the basis for computer chips that can transmit light. The result could be faster, less expensive, and significantly smaller computers and communications systems.

Today's computers use electronic signals to process and transmit data. Those signals are converted into light before they are sent over the Internet by bulky electronic equipment. With the engineered crystals, a computer could process information in both forms, making it easier to send without need of translation.

The federal government allocated $500 million in 2001 for the study of nanoscience. In 2002, it has allocated $620 million. Next year, it will likely allocate $700 million, Michalske said.

"The Department of Energy and other federal agencies are ramping up efforts in nanoscience because of its wide-ranging potential," he said. "In this center, our job is to work with scientists from all over the world to help develop that potential."

The other four centers will be at Brookhaven, Oak Ridge, Argonne, and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories. New Mexico's labs received $75.6 million to build the Center for Integrated Nanotechnology over the next four years.

"Construction should be completed by 2006, but DOE has agreed to provide new funding for next year to start operations almost immediately," Michalske said.

Copyright 2002 Scripps Howard News Service

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