making parts small so big things can happen
diameter of a pinhead-sized dot on this thumb represents a
By Fariss Samarrai
you afford to buy a Boeing 747? Not likely. But you probably have
a technological marvel on your desk-top your computer
that a few decades ago would have been as big as a large room
and cost about as much as a Boeing 747. These days, enormously
and complex computers are small, commonplace and inexpensive.
That 747 would have to fly around the world in 20 minutes and
cost only $500 to catch up with the advances that have occurred
in computers during the past 30 years.
next big thing in technology is that things are getting very small,
said Robert Hull, U.Va. professor of materials
science and engineering. Components of high technology
devices such as computers, cell phones and medical sensors will
keep getting smaller, faster, cheaper, and have far greater storage
capacity as microchips are improved and downsized.
we may live in a world of tiny but highly complex tools, such
as medical sensors that could be released into the blood stream,
or integrated communications computers that could be worn like
a wristwatch. Scientists and engineers may also be on the verge
of the physicists dream the quantum computer
which, for such applications as transmission of unbreakable codes,
or for complex meteorological calculations, would be enormously
more powerful than anything using conventional designs.
future is in the emerging field of nanotechnology, the engineering
of incredibly tiny integrated devices. Such nanoscale devices
are measured in number of atom widths between about 10
and 1,000, such that even the largest devices are 1,000 times
smaller than the width of a human hair.
challenge and the opportunity for materials scientists like Hull
is that the physical properties of materials change as they are
downsized to the nanoscale. For example, the work of William Jesser,
chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering,
has shown that metals that may be incapable of mixing at normal
scales, such as bismuth and tin, can mix and form an entirely
new material at the nanoscale.
rules of nature are different at the nanoscale, Hull said.
This creates outstanding opportunities to engineer properties
for amazing new structures and devices.
day is coming when researchers will be able to structure materials
atom by atom from the ground up. Hulls lab concentrates
on developing fundamental insights and understanding of new semiconducting
and metallic materials with specific desired characteristics.
Theyre looking for ways to capitalize on the positive property
changes occurring at the nanoscale, and to search for ways to
get around the obstacles that occur. U.Va. researchers are studying
both the successes and failures of various materials for a variety
of nanoscale applications.
fall the Engineering School received a $5 million grant from the
National Science Foundation to establish a Materials Research
Science and Engineering Center, with Hull serving as the center
director. This was achieved because of the strong multidisciplinary
nature of materials research at U.Va. One of the great strengths
in materials research here, according to Hull, is the close collaboration
between investigators in the departments of materials science,
chemical engineering, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical
engineering, biomedical engineering and physics.
lab also receives major funding from the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency, in collaboration with a multi-disciplinary team
interdisciplinary nature of this work provides fascinating new
insights and perspectives to common problems in materials research,
One of the most promising areas of nanoscience is in biotechnology.
and materials scientists are beginning to learn a great deal from
biology about how small structures work, said Thomas C.
Skalak, professor of biomedical engineering. Cells have
been doing highly complex things at the nanoscale from the beginning
of time. We can learn from this, and hope to develop artificial
structures at the nanoscale that could be integrated with living
Scientists envision developing a new generation of drugs and diagnostic
tools that can go straight to a problem such as a tumor
or a wound, provide information to a physician, and follow instructions
for making repairs.
is a new convergence of the life sciences and the physical sciences
for developing devices and drugs that can image and combat disease,
year the Virginia
2020 Science and Technology Planning Commission recommended
that nanotechnology should be a key focus area for further enhancement
at the University because of present strengths in the field. And
last October Congress allocated $423 million for nanoscience research.
U.Va. researchers hope to win some of those funds.
time is right, Hull said. This field is exploding,
and U.Va. has the potential to be one of the lead institutions
in nanoscience. We already have a great infrastructure, over $20
million in state-of-the-art research equipment for nanoscale synthesis,
measurement and processing, and an outstanding diverse faculty.
We really are poised to make magnificent new contributions to
the research in this field.
departments of materials science and engineering and of biomedical
engineering already are ranked among the top 20 nationally. In
December, alumnus Gregory H. Olsen, president and CEO of the fiber
optics firm Sensors Unlimited Inc., pledged $15 million to U.Va.,
ensuring construction next year of a new $14 million materials
the new field of nanotechnology, when things get small, big things