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Lesson from the Lake Reveals Modern Miracles of Nanotechnology

A sparkly silver streak of sunshine reflected on the lake from a break in the heavy clouds on a cold wintry day. This picturesque scene served as the backdrop through the windowed back wall of UTSI’s cafeteria as a fascinated audience learned about the tiniest big movement in modern science—nanotechnology.

On Jan. 30, Bill Hofmeister, Director of UTSI’s Center for Laser Applications, delivered the first Lesson from the Lake for 2007 to a large crowd, asking the question, “Nanotechnology: Revolution or Boondoggle?” Hofmeister explained that nanotechnology is the first scientific field of study based completely on scale. Nanotechnology is defined as the creation and use of materials or devices at extremely small scales. These materials or devices fall in the range of 1 to 100 nanometers. Just how small is a nanometer? “If a centimeter is represented by a football field, a nanometer would be the width of a human hair lying on the field,” Hofmeister answered. Put another way, he said, “If the distance to the moon was equal to one meter, a nanometer would be one foot.”

Though nanotechnology has only recently become popular and is currently studied by chemists, biologists, physicists and engineers in nano-facilities all over the U.S. funded by billions of research dollars, “nano” isn’t new, according to Hofmeister.

Richard Feynman first broached the subject in 1959 at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society. Feynman gave a lecture called, “There is plenty of room at the bottom,” proposing that the entire Encyclopedia Britannica could be put on the head of a pin, and that he could read it with a microscope. “Now, we can see things six-tenths of nanometer, atomic size,” said Hofmeister. “We can now visualize the nano-world, move individual atoms and put them where we want them,” he added.

You may have never heard of nanotechnology before, but you probably use it everyday. According to Hofmeister, today’s cell phones and computers use nanotechnology, and computer chips get smaller everyday. This tiny techno-science has the potential to become even more important to the public at large through its medical and health applications. A recent research project, Hofmeister explained, discovered a “nano-recipe for cooking cancer cells.”

Gold, just like the ring on your finger, has been discovered to change properties when reduced to only a few atoms. At a certain atomic level, rather than reflecting light, like your sparkly jewelry, it absorbs infrared light. This translates into a medical miracle for cancer victims because the human body is transparent to infrared light. So, the new treatment would begin by having the patient take a microscopic amount of gold; those tiny gold clusters attach themselves to the cancer cells in the body, then the malignant portion of the body is irradiated, causing the gold to heat up and kill the cancer cells. This golden cancer cure, discovered by Naomi Halas at Rice University in Texas, is still at the research stage, but holds great promise for the future of nano-science in the medical field.

The UT Space Institute is diving into the nano-pool, as researchers begin work on the SPARTAN project, an effort to control the function of single protein molecules by changing their shape. The potential uses for protein control are multi-faceted, include medical applications, and could lead to the development of new sensors for the detection of chemical and biological weapons. Hofmeister said that they will be using UTSI’s new “clean room” for the SPARTAN project, which involves several U.S. universities and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The new clean room is a totally enclosed building; the researchers have to wear special suits to enter the building and the air in the room is changed 25 times an hour, run through specially designed HEPA filters. Such measures have to be taken when working on nano-scale projects because even dust could ruin an experiment.

The next Lesson from the Lake will be held on Friday, Feb. 23 at 11:30 a.m. in the UTSI cafeteria. Greg Sedrick, Professor of Industrial and Information Engineering at UTSI, will present a lecture entitled, “Lean Manufacturing/Six Sigma/TQM/Business Process Re-engineering… and lions and tigers and bears – Oh MY!”

“Lessons from the Lake” seminars are free to the public. However, lunch is not provided free of charge, but is very reasonably priced. Lunch is not required to attend the seminar, but if you would like to have lunch, please allow ample time to go through the lunch line by arriving no later than 11 a.m., or else have lunch afterwards. Please RSVP by contacting Becky Stines at (931) 393-7276.