Coming into the UIUC Nanotechnology Institutes for Teacher Enhancement (UNITE) summer institute (sponsored by the UIUC Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems (Nano-CEMMS)), I only every thought of nanotechnology as the science that uses mini robots that are being developed to go into our bodies. This dystopian myth (inspired by a childhood of Marvel comics) is perhaps furthest from where nanotechnology is right now and hopefully furthest away from where it will head. Instead, nanotechnology will hopefully be better characterized by a much smaller and even more advanced Magic School Bus.
Last week, I studied science and engineering at the atomic level. That’s right: the atomic level. At the atomic level (which is more or less synonymous with the “nano” scale of measurement), many of our foundational understandings of chemistry, etc begin to be challenged because molecules and atoms behave differently than when they are clustered and at the size we can actually see. For example, gold has always had that yellow glow to it, yet once it’s sized down to the nano scale, it can be observed to have a pink tinge to it when suspended in a clear liquid.
With new discoveries come new ambitions from the engineers who hope to build tools at that level that will help us tackle problems with more precision. Medical researchers at UIUC are confident that they can engineer delivery mechanisms that bring chemotherapy just to cancer cells. They are also pretty confident that such mechanisms can be engineered to target your cancer cells’ specific DNA characteristics, making cancer treatment so much more effective when chemo is not attacking the entire body.
In order to work at that level, however, many tools have had to be developed. To build those mechanisms at that small of a level, the engineers have to work with machines that will allow them to see what they are doing and then actually do it! I had the wonderful experience of working with a scanning electron microscope (something even beyond the realms of CSI) to see the molecular surface of pollen and cloth fabrics. Engineers work with these microscopes when they design say a nano-arm that can pull atoms or molecules together to construct an atomic-scale product… and what’s the controller? Oh, just some specific wavelength of light. No big deal.
Ever wonder what ever happened to the space elevator idea? Well, it’s being re-visisted because nanotechnology will allow the construction of super-light materials (again from the molecular level) that could allow us to establish a geosynchronous space station serviced by a laser-powered elevator. It’s getting enough attention to warrant more international conferences on the topic specifically.
In all, I have been entirely “geeked” this week. There are so many applications for nanotechnology, many of which we are already seeing the advantages of in our society. What a great program this has been. With easy access to the materials to re-create dozens of hands-on and engaging labs that we’ve done so far, I almost wish I could teach a section of science this year…well, almost… certainly not alone! This technology will certainly be disruptive to our society once researchers and, in particular, product developers can readily produce devices or products easily and cost-effectively. In the mean time, let’s hope that the inquisitive and positive-minded Ms. Valerie Frizzle remains at the wheel and not the evil geniuses of comic lore.