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The World of Nanotechnology
I admit that the tiny world of nanotechnology sounds like so much science fiction that it caught me off guard to find out how much nanotechnology is in our everyday lives. That kind of concept integration should be a part of some integrated lessons in every day lessons.
If you are new to nanotechnology you will b searching for some sort of primer. NSTA with the University of Texas is offering a good web seminar on December 3rd.
Perhaps you, like me needed an even more primary introduction to the tiny world. A blogger (one of my favorites), Andrew Maynard has a video that will bring you up to speed and it is excellent. He also has a post on bringing us all up to speed in 13 easy steps. OK, the steps are not as easy for some but the science is pure genius.
Nanotechnology is currently being used in everything from car cleaners to fast dry socks. There is a pretty good list at this site:
Where the science morphs into the really amazing for me is medicine. The ability to use nano scale devices to diagnose and treat diseases is an emerging field and one that may spark some interesting discussions in high school classes.
To begin this exploration or integration into the nano world it is important to have a grasp on how small these structures are. For that I like to begin with the power of ten video.
That interactive tutorial will take students from the Milky Way to DNA and electrons. That is still quite a trip so some reference points will help. A nanometer is about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. That helps put it into perspective. But, the more analogies you find the better.
Many nano materials were made possible by these amazing pieces of carbon called “buckeyballs” or “Fullerenes”. These are named for the genius, Buckminster Fuller” who designed the geodesic dome. One of the best sites for explaining these amazing molecules comes from the “Chemical of the Week” site.
Nanotubes constructed with Buckyballs have high electrical and thermal capacity, high mechanical strength and high surface area. These tubes were the catalyst that led to some of the big ideas in nano technology.
At the nanoscale materials do not behave as they do at our normal scale. For example, a small nano sized scoop of silicon will appear a different color than a gram sized piece of silicon. In fact the wavelength related to common elements changes a lot at the nanoscale. One small nano scoop of silicon will glow blue where a larger scoop will glow red. In Medieval times those artisans who made stained glass windows heated and cooled their materials in a variety of ways. They were, in their day, crudely making nanoscale changes to their materials. Nanotechnology scientists find that at the nanoscale you can squeeze electrons into a more limited space and make them behave far differently than other atoms.
At this small scale materials have more surface area than they do interior. In fact, some nano materials are almost all surface. That makes them ideal as filters for lots of high tech purposes. For example, Berkley is experimenting with these materials for water purification.
In California they are testing new nano materials as solar cells. Most solar cells use silicon which is heavy and fragile. By engineering nano scale plastic films we would have windows or signs that generate electricity. This is all made possible by microscopes that let scientists see things at the molecular level.
That provides another avenue for study. How do electron scanning and alternative light source microscopes work? There are lots of ways to connect with these new tools. Iowa State University lets students in Iowa use their microscope for some interesting research. At most sites there is a gallery of photos from the microscope that will capture the attention of any student.
An explanation of how these amazing machines work is full of interesting science connections to middle level and high school.
Nanotechnology has been the science buzz word of this last year and will be in the forefront of most materials science for decades to come. It is important enough to archive some of the key news stories and make those available to students. More importantly, it is one of those concepts that the next generation of students will take for granted as part of their world, like plastics for my generation. For now the discoveries are coming fast and furious. I hope my students will want to understand more of these discoveries which means they must learn more science. Now that is a good thing.