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Nanotechnology: Small in image, big in usage
Some of the top nanotechnologists in the world will be at UH this week for a forum that could put Hawaii on the map as a research center
MAGINE a house whose walls can turn into windows that can be moved at will. Or a watery substance that can be molded into artificial human cartilage with properties exactly like the original substance. Or a cleaning brush so small that several thousand of its bristles could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.
These things might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but they're far from it. And the people who are working to produce these technologies will be converging on Honolulu this week.
From Wednesday through Friday, the University of Hawaii will host the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Multifunctional Nanocomposites International Conference. Speakers participating in the conference include two of the field's pioneers: Sir Harold Kroto, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for helping discover a nanotech building block called the buckyball; and Pulickel Ajayan, a key figure in the development of the carbon nanotube, another basic component of nanotechnology.
For academics like Ghasemi Nejhad, the founder and director of UH's Hawaii Nanotechnology Laboratory, hosting the meeting helps validate the laboratory's work producing such things as nanotech composite material that can be used to strengthen everything from surfboards to airplane wings.
Previous conferences have been held at universities such as Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Nejhad said.
The conference is being produced by the ASME, UH and Oceanit Laboratories Inc.
Like nano particles, the conference is small -- but important.
"It's only maybe 150 people, but these are the key people working in nanotechnology," said Vinod Veedu, senior nanotechnology engineer with Oceanit.
Local technology professionals see an opportunity to hear leaders of a field full of business opportunities.
"I'm going there for an education," said Sharon Webb, a medical doctor and lawyer who works with Hawaii biotech startups as a member of Vantage Counsel in Honolulu.
"There are a number of presenters who can get people up to speed on the state of the art," said Webb, who has taught surgery as Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Tufts University. "The presenters seem like they're first-rate in their fields."
The conference is about more than pure science. The meeting also will explore applications for nanotechnology and include a business plan competition featuring mainland researchers and startups that are trying to convert their nanotechnology into the next big thing.
Among them is Chuck Soponis, chief executive of Nanotherapeutics Inc. of Gainesville, Fla. Nanotherapeutics is working to use nanotechnology to enhance the effectiveness of drugs by increasing their "bioavailability." Already the company has had some successes, improving by many times the bioavailability of one antibiotic in experiments with animals, Soponis said.
"It shows the power of nanotechnology when dealing with drugs," he said.
Small building blocks
Although it might seem like a narrow, arcane field, nanotechnology is in fact such a general term that it's almost meaningless. While Nanotherapeutics is working to reduce the molecules of drugs to a point that they can be more effective, for instance, other companies are focusing on things as mundane as nanotech cloth to make spill-proof slacks, which you already can buy at the local mall. UH's Nejhad and his collaborators at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, meanwhile, have earned a spot in the latest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records for creating a brush designed to clean tiny particles from electronic chips.
What all of this has in common is that the scientists are creating these technologies using incomprehensibly small building blocks. The nanometer, from which nanotechnology takes its name, is one millionth of a millimeter. The bristles on Nejhad's cleaning brush are 5,000 times thinner than a human hair.
Hard as it may be to imagine manipulating things so small, what's even weirder is what happens to particles this size. The laws of ordinary Newtonian physics no longer apply to them; instead, they are bound by the more esoteric laws of quantum physics. According to these laws, particles of matter can move through seemingly impenetrable barriers, or appear to be in two places at the same time, said Wil McCarthy, an aerospace engineer and chief executive of the Programmable Matter Corp., a Colorado-based nanotech materials firm.
McCarthy is working on several applications using devices called quantum dots, which resemble artificial atoms. While some scientists are using quantum dots to create super-efficient solar electricity cells, McCarthy is applying them to optics. One vision within reach, he said, is a "programmable house" with windows that could be moved around on walls at will. And that's just the beginning.
"If you think of everything in your office as being made of some kind of material, it's not inconceivable for everything around you to be made of programmable materials," he said.
"You can't really think of nanotechnology as one thing," said Erik Miller, a mechanical engineer and polymer scientist from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who plans to present his team's nanotech synthetic cartilage during the conference's venture competition. "Nanotechnology is a toolbox. It's an application to a lot of things."
Definition: The word "nanotechnology" refers to new devices created by manipulating particles at the atomic and molecular level. The word comes from "nanometer," a unit of measure that is one millionth the size of a millimeter, the scale at which nanotechnology is produced.
Applications: Nanotechnology is widely used in advanced materials, including such down-to-earth items as stain-proof slacks, sunblock and plastics used in automobiles. Scientists are also researching the use of nanotechnology for a host of things: from making better drugs to creating tiny robots that can be used for space exploration.