Scientists and engineers are researching materials only billionths of a meter in size. The ability to control and manipulate material at this extremely small scale is having a big impact around the world, offering solutions in fields such as medicine, energy, and electronics. "Nanotechnology: Super Small Science" is produced by NBC Learn in partnership with the National Science Foundation.
Nanotechnology -- Harnessing the Nanoscale
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Colorful butterfly wings. Strong and sticky spider silk. Water-repellant leaves. Some of the most fascinating things we see in nature are possible because of things we can't see - materials, structures, and architectures on a scale so small they're invisible to the naked eye.
For scientists and engineers, the nano - or "billionth" - scale is a vast new frontier, where the ability to manipulate and control materials smaller than a fraction of a hair offers amazing opportunities for new materials, devices, methods, and applications.
Called nanotechnology, it's already having a big impact in a lot of areas, like medicine, electronics, nanostructured chemicals, energy, and optics.
DAWN BONNELL (University of Pennsylvania): You have nanotechnology in your everyday life right now. And you may not be aware of that.
SNOW: At the University of Pennsylvania's Singh Center for Nanotechnology, Dawn Bonnell is a materials science and nanotechnology researcher, and is funded by the National Science Foundation. She researches nanomaterials including oxides, carbon, and gold, which could be used to develop new devices. She also invents new scanning probe methods to measure material properties at that small scale.
BONNELL: We work in the range of a tenth of a nanometer up to several hundred nanometers.
SNOW: Exactly how small is a nanometer? Consider that one billion nanometers equals one meter. The head of a pin is about two millimeters in diameter - the equivalent of two million nanometers. The width of a human hair- about 100,000 nanometers. The diameter of a strand of human DNA- 2.5 nanometers. Lined up, 10 hydrogen atoms measure 1 nanometer.
At this incredibly small scale, Bonnell and her research team are studying the surfaces of a variety of materials to better understand how atoms on those surfaces behave. Knowing how nanoscale materials behave can give scientists and engineers the ability to manipulate them.
BONNELL: The first part of trying to control and harness nanoscale properties is to understand them.
SNOW: Scientists have found that the properties of nano-sized objects behave very differently than at larger scales. For example, a tiny piece of gold only 3 nanometers in size will look more red in color and have a lower melting point.
BONNELL: We do a wide range of experiments on those atoms to try to understand how they behave, and that helps us to think about how we could build devices out of them, how we could do useful things with them.
SNOW: Scientists and engineers often work in controlled environments - labs that are free of dust and other microscopic contaminants that could interfere with research and fabrication.
BONNELL: Clean rooms are an environment where there have been filters put in place, and insulation from sound, and insulation from vibration, that allows the environment to be pristine.
SNOW: Bonnell and her team use special instruments that allow them to "see" at the nanoscale. “Scanning Tunneling” and “Atomic Force” microscopes make images of a material's surface by using very sharp tips that interact with the surface. Using these tools, they can make very fine, detailed images of atoms on the surface of materials, allowing scientists to examine the properties of atoms.
BONNELL: And that is one of the excitements about scanning tunneling microscopy. It was the first that we're able to image atoms, and that revolutionized how we thought about making nanoscale devices, that we actually could make them, even one atom at a time.
SNOW: Bonnell explains that the ability to see and manipulate materials at the nanoscale was a huge step for nanotechnology.
BONNELL: It opened up our eyes to the possibility of using those properties that are special at that scale in a way that we wouldn't have been able to think about doing it before.
SNOW: Scientists are already exploiting the special properties of nanomaterials, with nanotechnology in products like stain-resistant clothing, cosmetics, and sunscreens, and electronics like smart phones, televisions, and computers. Nanotechnology could help with more efficient manufacturing, diagnosing and treating disease, cleaning up the environment, energy solutions, even protecting firefighters and soldiers.
BONNELL: There are tremendous opportunities, because we're able to do things at such a small scale with such precise control. I think we're just at the very beginnings of being able to harness those properties that we're measuring.
SNOW: For Bonnell and her team, the nanoscale is an opportunity to solve problems and improve quality of life; where great possibilities begin with something very, very small.
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