Nanotechnology: Small Objects, Big Dreams
Philip L. Graitcer
When you’re doing nanotechnology research, size really does matter.
Nanotechnology is the science of working with things that are very, very small.
“A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. And a meter is about as long as a yard,” says Kevin Martin, Associate Director of Georgia Tech’s Nanotechnology Research Center.
“Imagine a yardstick that you chop up into a billion equal size increments, one of those increments is a nanometer.”
In the nanotech world, according to Martin, when something gets small, things happen.
“All of a sudden, the electrons they really can’t travel in all three dimensions. They travel in only one dimension like a bead on a string. They can’t move off the string. So that’s one-dimensional motion.”
And when electrons are tamed to move only one way, you can create all kinds of space age stuff. Like video games, or heart monitors, or an automobile’s catalytic converter.
So nanotechnology is all about exploring physics, chemistry, electronics, and even the life sciences on a level where things are tiny.
I’m visiting Georgia Tech’s nanotechnology center, looking through a glass wall into what’s called the clean room.
The noise of the pumps and filters that are cleaning the air and keeping the equipment cool is deafening.
Greg Book, a researcher at the Center, explains why this special lab is necessary.
“The air out here where we are right now has millions of particles floating in the air. We don’t see them, but they’re all on the order of a micron or greater. If a particle is one micron, and we want to make a device on the order of nanometer, that particle is 10 times larger. So if that particle lands on that device while we’re making it, well, we’ve just lost our research.”
Inside, scientists and engineers are scrambling to think small and make big discoveries. Researchers like Book are using atomic force microscopes, scanning electron microscopes, and probes made from a sheet of carbon atoms to build and manipulate nano-objects and explore the nano-world.
And they do it wearing what looks a space suit from Star Trek.
Researcher Sawami Rajaraman, sticks his head out the door and describes what he’s wearing.
“I’m actually in what they call is a full bunny suit. I have gloves on, I have booties on, and I have a full suit on with something to cover my head, as well as something to cover my mouth. “
Rajaraman just completed his PhD in electrical and computer engineering. His research is at the intersection of biotechnology and microelectronics.
Today Rajaraman is building what’s called a micro-electronic array that will measure the electrical activity of individual cells.
“You have a certain disease that you’ve tracked down to the malfunctioning of a certain cell. You can understand its electrical behavior better and … by selectively adding a specific pharmaceutical compound you can actually make that specific problem go away.”
Now, Rajaraman is working for Axion Biosystems, a start-up biotech company that is using nanotechnology to develop rapid ways to screen for the effectiveness of new drugs.
Next week, Georgia Tech opens the Marcus Nantechnology Building, with increased nanotechnology research facilities and a state-of-the art clean room.