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It's the Little Things that Matter

Nanotechnology has been called the next industrial revolution, with potential for advances in pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, optics, environmental remediation, and more. Rensselaer researchers are part of a pre-eminent group of scientists around the world behind this small-scale revolution.

by Jason Gorss

To help promote the technology behind its “nano-enhanced” downhill skis, a major equipment manufacturer is urging consumers to imagine the size of the nanoscale: “Think very, very small. Now think even smaller.”

“Think even smaller” also could serve as the motto of the burgeoning research field of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology involves manipulating matter at the scale of a nanometer, one billionth of a meter, or about 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. But considering how the term has recently burst into the popular lexicon—from stain-proof “nano pants” to the State of the Union Address—researchers also are finding encouragement to think very, very big.

Some researchers claim that nanotechnology-derived products have reached the trillion-dollars threshold, while others frame the field as the next industrial revolution, with the potential for staggering advances in pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, optics, and environmental remediation, to name a few. Businesses are heavily investing in nanotechnology, with new companies sprouting up today like Internet and biotechnology companies did in the 1980s and 1990s. The U.S. government is also making nanotechnology a priority. But whatever might become of the buzz surrounding this millennial field, one thing is clear: Rensselaer researchers are key players among an international group of scientists working with atomic precision to make new materials and devices.

“Historically, Rensselaer has been known as a powerhouse in materials science and technology,” says Omkaram Nalamasu, vice president for research. “What we are doing with nanotechnology is building on this historic strength and heritage.”

In September 2001, the National Science Foundation (NSF) selected Rensselaer as one of the six original sites nationwide for a new Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC). A part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the center is devoted to realizing the full potential of nanotechnology by creating new materials, architectures, devices, and systems from nanoscale building blocks. The five other original NSECs are located at Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Northwestern, and Rice—each with a distinctive research focus.

In recent years, scientists have created a variety of nanoscale building blocks from atoms and molecules, but they have only just begun to assemble them into more complex structures. Much of the research at Rensselaer is distinguished by a focus on “directed assembly”—combining these building blocks in a controlled way to create materials with desired properties for a wide variety of applications, from artificial gecko feet to ultra-sensitive devices for detecting airborne toxins.

“Directed assembly of nanoscale building blocks into useful structures is the fundamental gateway to the eventual success of nanotechnology,” says Richard W. Siegel, the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of both the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center and NSEC. “At Rensselaer, we actually make all of our own nanoscale building blocks, from nanoparticles to nanotubes to hybrid structures comprised of both. That gives us a tremendous advantage in terms of controlling the nature of these structures and how they relate to one another.”

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