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."

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