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The Smallest Science

By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online.

By Julie Kirkwood
Staff Writer

Big things happen when you're dealing with objects the size of a small bundle of atoms, equal to one nanometer, or one millionth of a millimeter.

This weird world of things so small they are dwarfed by a single virus or strand of DNA is where the study of nanotechnology takes place.

"Things behave differently than you typically expect them to behave," said Joey L. Mead, associate professor in plastics engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

By studying the unusual reactions that take place in this tiny world, like a solid bead the size of a couple of atoms that defies the law of gravity and dangles from the tip of a needle, the hope of researchers is that one day there could be even faster computers, a way of injecting insulin without a needle, or stronger compounds that make for lighter, faster golf clubs and tennis rackets.

This is the reason this technology is the focus of trillions of research dollars, and a significant portion of that research is being done in our back yard.

Thanks to a new $12.4 million federal grant, researchers at the University of New Hampshire, UMass Lowell and Northeastern University are about to get intimate with this nano world. Their job is to take these fledgling nanotechnology ideas and figure out how to manufacture them on an industrial scale for consumer products.

But it's a considerable challenge -- nano parts are so small that it's an intensely complicated process to bring them together.

"That's been the bulk of what we've been doing for the last 31/2 years," said Greg Schmergel, co-founder and chief executive of Nantero in Woburn.

What makes this world so unusual is not just that things are small. It's that they're on the border between big and small, where the atom-sized building blocks of an object and the object itself come together.

"It's sandwiched right there at the interface between these two worlds," said Glen P. Miller, an associate professor in chemistry and materials science at UNH.

When things get to be the size of a cluster of atoms, the laws of the big world don't apply. But the laws governing individual atoms and their internal parts don't apply either. Being caught in between makes substances do unusual things.

"They're not always predictable, as we're learning," said Arthur C. Watterson, director of the Institute for Nanoscience and Engineering Technology at UMass Lowell.

But the more they learn, the more applications they find.

Nantero has created a memory chip that would allow a laptop computer to boot up instantly, using nanotubes -- little cylinders of carbon atoms -- to mechanically record the millions of 1s and 0s of computer language. The team of Ph.D.s had to invent ways to get the bundles of nanotubes to stick to the right places on a silicon wafer, sort of like trying to neatly organize specs of dust.

"It was extremely hard to get to this point," Schmergel said. "Being able to position them in the places you want on a wafer is very difficult. You can't just pick them up and put them in the right place."

That's where the local college collaboration comes in. The researchers are creating reusable templates, like Jell-O molds, with grooves that guide individual nanotubes to lie down in specific formations. They can be used over and over again to move billions of atoms and nano-size parts.

Nantero's memory chip is one of two products that could be using the templates commercially within five years, Miller said. The other is a biosensor, developed by a Chelmsford company called Triton Systems. Like the shrunken spaceship in the sci-fi classic "Inner Space," tiny beads would roam around a person's body looking for something specific, such as cancer cells, and send up a red flag if anything is amiss.

"People have already demonstrated that you can do biosensors," said Mead, who is collaborating with Triton on the project. "Our focus is really doing this at high rates."

While these two innovations would make a noticeable difference in consumers' lives, most nanotechnology advances will probably slip into use undetected, the scientists predict.

Already carbon nanotubes are sneaking undetected into products such as the running boards of Ford sport utility vehicles, Miller said. Like graphite and other carbon compounds, carbon nanotubes are strong and light-weight. It's only a matter of time before they are incorporated into tennis rackets and golf clubs, Miller predicted.

"The changes are not going to be so large that you can't recognize the technology," Miller said. "It's just that the existing technologies will get better and better and better. ... It means changes in subtle ways that aren't really appreciated by everybody, but ultimately they improve everybody's lives. And that's what technology should do."

Most nanotechnology structures are somewhere between the size of an atom and a virus.

n An atom (such as a hydrogen

or an oxygen) =

0.1 to 0.5 nanometers

n A buckyball, a soccer-ball-shaped cage of carbon atoms =

about 1 nanometer

n A carbon nanotube = about 1.3 nanometers in diameter

n DNA = about 2.5 nanometers in diameter

n A virus (such as influenza) = 20 to 250 nanometers

n A bacterium (such as E. coli) = 1,000 nanometers

n A red blood cell = 2,000 to 5,000 nanometers

n The width of a human hair = 100,000 nanometers

n Head of a pin = 1,000,000 nanometers

n Ant = 5,000,000 nanometers