Nanoscience is the study of very small things, specifically in the range of 1 to 100 nanometers. It can be hard to comprehend how small that actually is. Think down to the size of molecules.
It almost seems like science fiction that scientists are working in this space; imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter that can’t be seen with the human eye. As there are billions of atoms that make up the human body and everything we interact with, Nanoscience can affect every industry. It can allow us to observe the world more intimately; and when materials are created or manipulated at this scale it can enhance the way we live our everyday lives.
During our research we interviewed a dozen scientists about their jobs, what inspires them, and their view on the future of nanoscience. Excerpts of their most compelling thoughts are included below.
Creating a sustainable presence in space
Today Nano scientists are working on making technology lighter, creating better water filtration for astronauts, more intelligent sensors to work in extreme environments and monitor astronaut health. This work will likely lead to creating longer and more sustainable space missions and those technologies will ripple back to Earth with advancements like electric powered aircrafts.
Dr. Tiffany Williams
Materials Research Engineer at NASA
Dr. Williams work is in developing next generation polymer matrix composites and nanocomposites, and other multifunctional materials.
She explained that many scientists at NASA also uses nanotechnology to develop radiation, chemical, and biological sensors to help better understand the environments on other planets, monitor astronaut health, or perform in cryogenic or other extreme environments. Her team at NASA is also working on water treatment technology which will be very important for future manned Mars missions . One of her research interests is in biomimicry; how scientists can be inspired by nature to develop technology for space travel. “If you look at nature, such as leaves and insects, under a scanning electron microscope a lot of the unique functionality that you see in nature exists at the surface level...these various biological systems have nanoscale feature sizes. If you think of a snake or a desert scorpion and how they move across the sand, how is it that they don’t have scratches? ” That could be of interest to us for designing better abrasion-resistant materials that would be exposed to either dusty environments in space or when flying in sandy climates on Earth.
Why is working in nanotechnology important to you on a personal level?
“You can find incentive and personal enjoyment, in knowing the work you do can positively impact other people beyond yourself...It’s the relationships and the partnerships that I can be a part of that really make a difference, especially with investing in the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Working at NASA is a lot of fun and there is never a dull moment; since I work on many early-stage research projects, you are lucky if your project lasts five or six years, my projects have changed a lot over time... In material science you could go from working on electrical insulation to support electric propulsion, to working on load bearing composites for a completely different application. There are some overlaps in the knowledge that you can apply. That’s why I do believe material science is so interdisciplinary. I change projects every few years, I learn new things, I meet new people, and new experts in the field. It's a lot of fun and I never get bored. I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.
I wish more people understood how important this work is so that we can get as many creative and talented minds to work in this area and help advance STEM.”
Dr. Tiffany Williams - NASA
Dr. Debbie Senesky
Primary Investigator at Stanford University
Dr. Senesky has developed nanomaterials for extreme space environments, high-temperature electronics, and robust instrumentation for future Venus exploration. Venus has extreme environments where Earth’s most common electronics cannot function, and she is helping advance NASA's technology by testing electronics in 600°C environments to understand what nanomaterials will be functional during an actual Venus mission. She is also working on synthesizing graphene aerogels in microgravity environments on the International Space Station (ISS). She aims to examine the influence of long-duration microgravity on the mechanical, thermal and electrical properties of these remarkable nanomaterials for use on Earth and during space missions.
What Nanotechnology breakthrough do you hope to see in your lifetime?
"I think it would be remarkable to see a lander-style mission to Venus to examine the morphology, seismology and weather patterns on the surface. Extreme-environment nanoelectronics, such as sensors, imagers and communication circuitry are key to such a mission.” Dr. Senesky is also excited about the potential Breakthrough Starshot Program, which hopes to use an Interstellar Nano satellite using solar propulsion, to be capable of making the journey to the Alpha Centauri star system 4.37 light-years away.
Revolutionizing the way diagnose and fight viruses and diseases
The most important medical achievement of 2020, the COVID-19 vaccine, was a result of scientific collaboration that was enabled through decades of nanotechnology research. Nanomedicine experts are also working towards creating nano-sensors for better diagnosis and bio-monitoring which will help understand the human body and identify diseases. There is also work being done using nanotechnology to create targeted drug delivery through nanocarriers, regenerative treatment, and wound repair.
Georgia Tech Senior Research Engineer
Devin Brown is a nanotechnology and microfabrication research engineer. Over his career he has worked in the silicon industry and at universities as a research scientist. Devin has a unique perspective of nanotechnology from the start of the chip era to where we are today. One of the things he has been working on is research in collaboration with another research group at Georgia Tech that involves blood platelets. They are collecting and measuring the force of hundreds of platelets to better understand the differences in platelets for healthy people and those with blood disorders like hemophilia.
What is the end goal of your project using nanotechnology to help with blood disorders?
“I'm trying to make a device with my research that will eliminate the need for a human to analyze data for blood platelet research. So, the goal is to create a device that will convert the force that the platelet exerts to an electrical signal that we can record. That way we can simultaneously measure hundreds or thousands of platelets all at once. We could establish a relationship between force and an electrical signal to characterize the blood very quickly.” This seems a little awkward wording? Maybe try “So, the goal is to create…”
Devin is an example of an engineer tailoring nanoscale properties in ways that we were unable to do before. This kind of research is going to be significant in finding cures for diseases that have historically been incurable.
Devin Brown - Georgia Tech
Utilizing nanotechnology to fight climate change
Nanotechnology exists in our everyday products, processes, and its applications are expected to contribute significantly to environmental and climate protection. These applications reduce the use of raw materials and increase product longevity. Currently, nanotechnologies also effectively recycle batteries, purify water globally, identify pollution, and create insulation materials to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. Nanotechnology research is also important in understanding the current effects of our collective human footprint, and what changes that need to be made for the benefit of human and environmental health.
Paul Westerhoff, PhD, PE, BCEE
Regents' Professor & Fulton Chair of Environmental Engineering
Paul Westerhoff has been doing work for nanotechnology research in relation to water since his master’s degree in the 1980s. Researching field conditions of drinking water and waste water, his team has done work understanding the environmental implications on exposure of nanomaterials in water. He has also done a lot of product life cycle testing. This aids in the understanding of nanoparticles that come off clothes, solar panels, tupperware, paint, ect. Also, what can be done to use less materials, extend the products life, and prevent the release of unwanted nanoparticles. He also works for NEWT or Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment systems which is an interdisciplinary, multi-institution nanosystems-engineering research center. NEWT's technologies safely exploit the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) to treat water using fewer chemicals, less electricity, and smaller reactors than current technologies.
Will nanotechnology play a role in fighting climate change?
“Yes. How is the million dollar question, but even solar panels are nanotechnology... We are also looking at the consequences of what we use...My group tends to look at what is in the environment, understand what is there, if any of it is important, and if it is what to do about it. For example there is a team in Mexico City looking at the brains of deceased Alzheimer's patients. They frequently find magnetic iron in the plaques...it could come from growing there as lots of organisms produce iron, but they also found palladium and platinum from catalytic converters. This is attributed to air pollution. So now we are looking at dust and magnetic material in the environment to understand what is their role in causing diseases, and how can we minimize those.” NEWT does important work in purifying water and doing research on man-made products to understand how longevity could be improved or how they can use less materials. But NEWT also does important work in understanding and proving where technology negatively affects human health and the environment, NEWT is able to create compelling reasoning on what needs to change to help create a sustainable future.
Paul Westerhoff - NEWT
Furthering the capabilities of modern computing & an introduction to high density data storage
Moore’s law states that every 2 years the number of transistors that fit on a computer chip will double, and the cost will be halved. This statement has held true for the last 40 years allowing us to make computers accessible to millions of applications. As we approach the limit of Moore’s law we begin to see that computers have begun to saturate the market appearing in our headphones, our watches, our cars, and of course our phones. The conventional method to make computer chips smaller is beginning to flatline, pushing scientists to look for innovative solutions.
Harley Hayden - Georgia Tech
GTRI Senior Research Scientist
Senior Research Engineer
Dr. Guise is a Program director at GTRI researching how to store digital data on synthetic DNA.
“Part of the reason we are working on this problem is the limits of nano fabrication, we can no longer keep scaling down to make more dense hard drives at the same rate of progress...So we have to look for new solutions, in this particular case, trying to merge nanofabrication with synthetic biology.
The idea is that you can take your ones and zeros and instead encode them into a sequence of bases, As, Gs, Cs, Ts, in a strand of DNA and store your data that way... The reason why you would want to do that is primarily density. DNA is inherently very small, and it's three-dimensional so you can store a ridiculous amount of data in a very small volume. You can also dry it out, rehydrate it later, and sequence it and the DNA is still good.”
This technique could potentially store the entire library of congress contents without taking up more than a cubic centimeter. Small DNA data archives have been synthesized in the past, but only up to ~100MB in size, and at prices that are orders of magnitude higher than commercial tape storage or hard drives. Dr. Guise works with a team of engineers trying to scale up their DNA data storage processes to make this method more efficient and cost-effective.
Why do you enjoy working in nanotechnology and what drives you to do this research?
Harley Hayden, a senior research engineer who works closely with Dr. Guise adds,
“We are in this place where we help prototype and scale things up from a single lab or academic idea to where it could possibly be mass produced or commercialized in some way. The motivation for that is that the work that we are doing is societally important. We are both in the quantum systems lab in GTRI and we started by making small traps for quantum computing. It was a similar process of taking academic ideas and transitioning them to cleanroom practices, and we got to the point over ten to twelve years where it was commercializable. It is cool work societally and possibly for the future of computing.”