Research

September 17, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Tiny Tech: Nanoscientists and Engineers Explore Science of the Small to Develop Tomorrow’s Technologies

By Andrea Gibson
Illustrations by Christina Ullman

A better picture from your Blu-ray or DVD player. More accurate sensors that can detect hazardous chemicals and materials. A wider range of light emitting diodes (LEDs). More memory for your computer–in less space. Tiny “labs on a chip” that can test out dozens of new drug candidates simultaneously.

In the quest to build the fastest, most efficient, and highest quality technologies for the future, scientists and engineers have been looking for solutions in an entirely new place: the tiny world of atoms and molecules. For decades now, researchers have been exploring the very different laws of physics and behaviors that exist on this extremely small scale and are finding new opportunities to build and power the next generation of devices.

“Future technology will depend heavily on our understanding of nanoscale structures and properties,” says Ohio University physicist Arthur Smith. “It will impact all areas of human existence, including medicine and health, electronics and advanced technologies, and mechanical materials that have high hardness and strength.”

In 2001, Ohio University capitalized on its longtime materials science and engineering research to launch the Nanoscale and Quantum Phenomena Institute (NQPI). More than two dozen faculty members from fields ranging from physics and chemistry to math and chemical engineering now work together on problems that have implications for fields ranging from computer science, telecommunications, and medicine to environmental remediation and energy. Over the last five years, they’ve pulled in almost $20 million in funding from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy.

“Because we believe nanoscience and nanomedicine will have such a pervasive influence on humanity’s future, we can’t afford not to do this,” says Smith, NQPI director.

Some of the technologies are under development by Ohio University researchers with an eye towards commercialization for the marketplace. Many others are still being explored in the lab, where scientists and engineers are discovering and building intriguing devices at the small scale.

“Future technology will depend heavily on our understanding of nanoscale structures and properties,” says Ohio University physicist Arthur Smith. “It will impact all areas of human existence, including medicine and health, electronics and advanced technologies, and mechanical materials that have high hardness and strength.”

In 2001, Ohio University capitalized on its longtime materials science and engineering research to launch the Nanoscale and Quantum Phenomena Institute (NQPI). More than two dozen faculty members from fields ranging from physics and chemistry to math and chemical engineering now work together on problems that have implications for fields ranging from computer science, telecommunications, and medicine to environmental remediation and energy. Over the last five years, they’ve pulled in almost $20 million in funding from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy.

“Because we believe nanoscience and nanomedicine will have such a pervasive influence on humanity’s future, we can’t afford not to do this,” says Smith, NQPI director.

Some of the technologies are under development by Ohio University researchers with an eye towards commercialization for the marketplace. Many others are still being explored in the lab, where scientists and engineers are discovering and building intriguing devices at the small scale.

Energy-efficient data storage

Imagine a flash drive 1,000 times faster than today’s models, or downloading megabyte pictures through your iPhone in the blink of an eye. Scientists have been looking to phase-change memory materials for the next generation of memory devices, but have struggled to overcome a major fault: The devices consume a lot of power as their capacity increases. Physicist Gang Chen is developing a novel solution to the problem. He’s fabricated semiconductor wires and encased them in a silica matrix similar to the material used in fiber optics. When these tiny wires are confined in a small space, they show promise for operating as faster, smaller, less energy-intensive data storage than other technologies under study. Why are these materials so good? It’s partly because they exist in two solid states: ordered and disordered (much in the way that binary code comes in zeroes and ones, the scientist explains) that switch back and forth in a matter of only nanoseconds, says Chen, whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy. Now Chen and collaborators are testing out specific types of these materials to determine which ones have the best performance. They’re intrigued by highly porous materials that have been shown to enhance the transition between the two solid states. In the future, the technology could replace conventional information storage devices such as DVD and Blu-ray discs, as well as flash drives.

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