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Home > Press > Nanotechnology’s reach, from swords to solar cells

In a lecture last week, Murray Gibson, founding dean of the College of Science, examined the history of nanoscience — and what studying nature means for its future. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.
In a lecture last week, Murray Gibson, founding dean of the College of Science, examined the history of nanoscience — and what studying nature means for its future. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Abstract:
Nanotechnology may be an emerging field of study, but it's actually been around for a number of centuries, said Murray Gibson, founding dean of the College of Science at Northeastern University.

Nanotechnology’s reach, from swords to solar cells

Boston, MA | Posted on November 8th, 2011

To make swords, blacksmiths would bang away at iron in the presence of coal dust — thereby infusing tiny carbon particles into the iron to make the sword tips sharp. "They didn't know how it worked, but they were doing nanotechnology thousands of years ago," Gibson told more than 30 faculty and students in Frost Lounge last Tuesday for a lecture presented by PRISM, the Proactive Recruitment in Introductory Science and Mathematics.

PRISM is an initiative that connects Northeastern mathematicians, physicists and biologists with first- and second-year students who want to learn more about math and science research-related co-ops and internships. It was developed by members of Northeastern's math and science faculty and is supported by a five-year, $1.98 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Nanoscience, Gibson said, is a highly interdisciplinary field best described as a convergence between the physical and life sciences. It revolves around the study of tiny objects. A nanometer, for example, is about the size of 10 atoms, or about how much a fingernail grows in a second.

Much of the science is explained in the arrangement and pattern of atoms on the nanoscale. This arrangement, Gibson explained, is what differentiates diamonds from graphite found in pencils. How atoms organize and bond with each other also determines the brilliant colors in ancient stained-glass windows.

Nanoscience even occurs in the kitchen. Earlier this semester, students in Northeastern's chapter of the American Chemical Society made ice cream using liquid nitrogen. When liquid nitrogen hits the cream and other ingredients, it immediately creates crystals, which Gibson said directly relates to how the ice cream tastes.

"It's a very expensive way to make ice cream, and only a chemist would think that way," he joked.

Nanotechnology, Gibson noted, may lead to a revolution in the way things are built — from lighter, stronger aircraft wings to cheap solar cells that can solve the world's energy problems. He said nanotechnology might be used in health care to help detect viruses and deliver drugs.

The answers, Gibson said, lie in studying how nature and evolution have already built things from the bottom up, and then translating that knowledge into interdisciplinary research, which he said can provide fertile ground for collaboration and discovery.

Northeastern researchers are already exploring the boundaries of nanotechnology through innovative work across numerous research centers and programs, such as the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, the Electronic Materials Research Institute, the Center for Translational Cancer Nanomedicine and the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program in nanomedicine.

Gibson said it's critical for students interested in pursuing research to develop expertise in a particular discipline. This, he said, will provide a strong foundation for designing science experiments and position students to conduct interdisciplinary research, which he called a critical component in the future of nanotechnology.

"The great thing about science is you're always discovering like you did as a child," he said.

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