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Welcome to the World of Nanotechnology

Tiny technology promises big rewards. Some may already be in your closet.

By Jennifer Kahn

Not all nanosize materials change properties so usefully (there's talk of adding nano aluminum to rocket fuel), but the fact that some do is a boon. With them, scientists can engineer a cornucopia of exotic new materials, such as plastic that conducts electricity and coatings that prevent iron from rusting. It's like you shrink a cat and keep shrinking it, and then at some point, all at once, it turns into a dog. Substances behave magically at the nanoscale because that's where the essential properties of matter are determined. Arrange calcium carbonate molecules in a sawtooth pattern, for instance, and you get fragile, crumbly chalk. Stack the same molecules like bricks, and they help form the layers of the tough, iridescent shell of an abalone.It's a tantalizing idea: creating a material with ideal properties by customizing its atomic structure. Scientists have already developed rarefied tools, such as the scanning tunneling microscope, capable of viewing and moving individual atoms via an exquisitely honed tip just one atom wide. "Nano's going to be like the invention of plastic," says Paul Alivisatos, associate director of physical sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's new nanofabrication center. "It'll be everywhere: in the scalpels doctors use for surgery and in the fabrics we wear." Alivisatos already owns a pair of stain-resistant nanopants from the Gap, made from fibers treated with fluorinated nanopolymer. "I spilled coffee on them this morning, and it rolled right off."On a table in a lab at Rice University, André Gobin, a graduate student, is working with two slices of raw chicken. He nudges the slices together so they touch and dribbles greenish liquid along the seam. The liquid is a solution of nanoshells: minuscule silica beads covered, in this case, with gold. Switching on an infrared laser, Gobin deftly traces the beam down the length of the green line. Tweezing the chicken up, he dangles what is now a single piece of meat. Someday soon surgeons may be able to use a nanoshell treatment like this to reconnect veins that have been cut during surgery.


Welcome to the World of Nanotechnology

Date: 2015-04-20; view: 1737

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