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Posted: March 31, 2008
University professor talks small
(Nanowerk News) To date, the real world applications of nanotechnology have been somewhat limited in scope: stronger sunscreens, better cosmetics and stain-resistant fabric.
Yet in the coming years the great promise of this groundbreaking $4 billion industry will begin to pay major dividends and dramatically redefine the fields of electronics, medicine and energy production, scientists say. These impending advancements will not just improve the quality of life, but help researchers unravel the mysteries of how intricate atomic properties act and interact, Rosalyn Berne, a University of Virginia professor, told an audience Sunday during a nanotechnology “open house” and as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.
University of Virginia scientists are at the forefront of these new technological breakthroughs, unearthing the building blocks of life and working to translate those discoveries into commercial products and medicines.
In the fall of 2006 the university opened a $68 million center devoted to nanotechnology research, and nearly 100 academics from a host of fields now collaborate through the school’s nanoSTAR institute.
With nanotechnology scientists are “able to control and manipulate matter at the atomic level,” said Lisa Friedersdorf, nanoSTAR’s managing director.
Through powerful scanning microscopes, scientists now have the ability to see and then affect properties on the molecular scale down to the nanometer — one-billionth of a meter. For perspective, a strain of DNA is two nanometers wide while the diameter of a red blood cell is 2,000 nanometers and a typical ant is 2 million nanometers long.
In his lab, James Fitz-gerald uses a $1 million microscope to zoom in approximately 75,000 times onto a piece of space shuttle tile. The microscope reveals that the tile is partially composed of an elaborate forest of fibers and rods. But mostly, “there’s nothing there. It’s really just air,” Fitz-gerald explains.
Now that scientists have the ability to see the composition of materials, they can study the chemical properties and find ways to alter them. Using nanotechnology, for example, scientists can create stronger tiles for the space shuttle that better retain heat, Fitz-gerald said.
Some of the greatest breakthroughs likely will occur in the field of medicine. Researchers at UVa are finding new ways to treat cancer and other diseases, as well as improving drug delivery within the body. For example, nanostructures are being developed to enhance cell growth and enable tissue regeneration.
Nanotechnology is also set to change the face of electronics and entertainment. Carbon nanotubes and “spintronics” offer the promise of faster processing and more power in small devices.
“We’ve gotten to the point where the current technology will no longer allow us to get smaller and faster,” Friedersdorf said. “We need new ways to store information.”
Scientists and engineers at UVa are also studying how nanoparticles can improve alternative sources of energy such as fuel cells and photovoltaics.
However, these technological advancements are also raising serious ethical questions in the scientific community. No one can be sure of the long-term implications of inserting nanoparticles into the human body or of the new technology’s effect on the environment.
Policymakers must consider the potential misuses of these innovations, especially now that scientists are creating matter, Berne, the author of “NANOTALK,” said.
Berne is concerned that the pressures of the marketplace — the never-ending demand for new innovations and products — are preventing researchers from adequately vetting the real-life and moral consequences of using nanotechnology.
We “are going forward quickly into terrain we don’t necessarily understand,” she said.