- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

Nanotechnology one day will change the world as we know it, say leading scientists and entrepreneurs who are hard at work testing, developing and marketing this relatively new and still-emerging field, which focuses on minute quantities of matter. Some have referred to it as the next industrial revolution.
Imagine being able several decades hence to reduce all the information contained in the Library of Congress to a single small cube. How about self-sterilizing kitchen counters and germ-free clothes? A computer laptop screen that has the thickness and weight of a piece of paper? How about micro devices to make toxic waste inert and so-called nano-bot devices to perform surgery or detect cancer cells inside the human bloodstream?
Such things, traditionally the stuff of science fiction, are rapidly becoming reality in a nano-minded world a world full of promise but also, in the wrong hands, of potential peril.
The prefix nano, foreign to most people's ears, comes from the Greek nanos, meaning dwarf. In essence, nanoscience a blend of chemistry, biology, physics and material science is the study of the behavior of nanoparticles, which are made up of atoms too small for the human eye to see.
Nanotechnology, which is any technology done on a nanometer scale, is the manipulation of individual molecules or groups of atoms to make useful materials and devices. A nanometer is a unit of measure equal to one-billionth of a meter, or three to five atoms across.
To make it comprehensible in human terms, 100 nanometers are equal to one-hundredth the width of a strand of human hair. This is about the smallest molecular level known.

The marketplace has been quick to take advantage of the possibilities despite the risks involved in finding and creating customers for what still is a fairly expensive and complicated business. Already, supersmall batteries which are the size and thickness of a credit card and can be recharged by sunlight are being used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in some of its satellites.
Companies such as Nanophase Technologies Corp. of Romeoville, Ill., manufacture and sell nano materials for use in personal and health care applications such as vinyl flooring and sunscreen.
"As with every new science, there is a subculture of people who try to come out and make money," says Don Freed, Nanophase vice president for business development. "You could go to a nano conference taking place every three days around the world."
Two competing glass manufacturers are offering "self-cleaning" windows that have a surface layer of titanium dioxide particles so small they are transparent. The special property of these minute particles causes them to loosen dirt on the window when they interact with ultraviolet light. When water or rain hits, the particles spread the dirt evenly over the surface, making it easier to remove and leaving no telltale streaking.
Chemists, physicists and material engineers long have known about the potential of nanomatter. The National Science Foundation is funding 2,000 to 3,000 research projects in the field, mostly in academic settings. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a part of the Department of Commerce concerned with measurements and scale in nearly every form, has experiments and projects in nanoscience under way in several laboratories on its sprawling Gaithersburg campus.
Since 1990, NIST's Advanced Technology Program has subsidized a vast range of promising commercial applications in partnership with the private sector innovative projects considered too risky financially to be undertaken without outside support.
The amount of money given to 34 NIST-supported projects in nanotechnology in the past 11 years totals more than $128 million and includes eight-figure sums for such project titles as "Blood 'Fingerprinting': A First Step Toward Personalized Medicine," "Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording" and "Coating-Enabled Component Design/Technology Tools for Nanostructured Coatings."
Competition for these NIST awards is intense, say Advanced Technology Program officials who monitor and act as go-betweens in a special symbiotic relationship between government and industry. Usually, such projects are joint ventures that involve alliances among research laboratories, universities and companies. NIST officials designate as "the Valley of Death" the doomed arena in which promising basic research-and-development work often ends up because of lack of capital funding.

The 10-year-old Nanophase, which grew out of research-and-development work done in Chicago at the Argonne Laboratory, received nearly $1 million from NIST between 1991 and 1993, according to Mr. Freed, who rightly describes the publicly traded firm as "a NIST success story."
Funding for the project, whose formal title was "Synthesis and Processing of Nanocrystalline Ceramics on a Commercial Scale," also involved slightly less than $400,000 from industry sources.
"Basically, we had to have commercial partners," Mr. Freed says. "It helped us grow as a successful business with a robust technology that today is protected by about 30 patents. Large companies such as DuPont have active nanotechnology programs and [also] make nanomaterials. We are different because not only do we make nanomaterials, which is our sole business, but we sometimes teach how to apply them and help solve customers' problems."
The products the company sells, like many others using the technology, are meant primarily to increase efficiency and, ultimately, reduce costs. The basic manufacturing process involves taking a metal such as aluminum or zinc and subjecting it to extremely high temperatures until the metal vaporizes. Then it is mixed with gas in most cases, oxygen.
"What results," says Mr. Freed, a chemist by training who previously worked at the pioneering Bell Laboratories, "is aluminum oxide in the form of crystals so tiny they are practically invisible. Therein lies its great benefit."
To date, the company primarily sells nanomaterials that when applied as a transparent coating provide increased abrasion resistance and longevity for such items as vinyl flooring. The same transparency feature applied to sunscreen means that ultraviolet-light-blocking compounds such as zinc oxide, when treated with nanoparticles, do not leave a creamy residue on the skin.

Manipulating things on a scale the size of an atom creates a host of challenging problems for scientists and engineers concerned with the behavior of nanoparticles under varying circumstances. Until more is known, the revolution cannot proceed.
Much of the work being done in NIST laboratories is directed toward this end so that eventually applications can be standardized and performance of the nanomaterials can be regulated for beneficial ends. Two of the NIST groups actively pursuing such studies are the Building and Fire Research Laboratory and the Physics Laboratory, both with impressive machines that look into the heart of matter far smaller than what the human eye can see.
Studies under way in the Building and Fire Research Laboratory are investigating the use of nanoparticles as additives to polymers and other building materials to learn how they are affected by ultraviolet light. Before consistent measurements can be established indicating how nanoparticles in a polymer react, it's necessary to know how the mechanisms work, depending on the size and shape of the particles.
The lab can determine this with the help of a nano indenter machine that shows how nanoparticles are dispersed on the surface by applying light forces on a small area. Before that, it is necessary to measure properties of the surface coating how strong and how durable it is before nanoparticles are applied. (An atomic force microscope allows the researchers to see extremely small particles on a single inch of material. A laser scanning confocal microscope can look at nanoparticle distribution layer by layer.)
One question to be answered: Might nanoparticles absorb energy from ultraviolet light and use it to initiate chemical reactions that kill bacteria?

The goal, of course, is learning about the reactions of things, trying to use the features of nanotechnology by taking advantage of the small sizes involved, says NIST research engineer Mark VanLandingham.
Not far away, a group in the Physics Laboratory is doing even more basic research into the atom itself. The sizes here nearly defy the imagination, when you consider that there are about a half-million nanometers in the dot of the letter i on this page. (The normal measure given is that one nanometer would be equal to 10 hydrogen atoms if it were possible to line them up.) A machine custom-built for this purpose, called a low-temperature scanning tunneling microscope, is designed to study what happens when you get down to the smallest building blocks of matter.
"It's physics directed at measurement science," says scientist Robert Celotta, who works with Joe Stroscio, another physicist. "This is not a factory. We don't produce things. We both invent methods and work with companies in the United States to look at their prototype and research projects. We look at things they can't see yet."
In this way, the future is in their hands, in how they look at the tiniest bits of matter. "Seeing isn't quite the word," Mr. Celotta says. "It's a form of Braille. We can feel them feel where they are, in a sense."
With electronics becoming smaller every year and so much technology based on scaling, at some point, he notes, "there will be nanostructures, and they are either going to cause problems or permit a whole new generation of electronics based on principles we haven't thought of yet."


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