Thursday, May 17, 2001

Robert Hull - Nanotechnology: Making Parts Small so Big Things Can Happen

Inside UVA  by Fariss Samarrai

Could 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 advanced 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.

“The 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.”
The diameter of a pinhead-sized dot on this
thumb represents a million nanometers.

Eventually, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

“The rules of nature are different at the nanoscale,” Hull said. “This creates outstanding opportunities to engineer properties for amazing new structures and devices.”

The day is coming when researchers will be able to structure materials atom by atom from the ground up. Hull’s lab concentrates on developing fundamental insights and understanding of new semiconducting and metallic materials with specific desired characteristics. They’re 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.

Last 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.

Hull’s lab also receives major funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, in collaboration with a multi-disciplinary team at U.Va.

“The interdisciplinary nature of this work provides fascinating new insights and perspectives to common problems in materials research,” he said.
One of the most promising areas of nanoscience is in biotechnology.

“Physicists 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 systems.”
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.

“There is a new convergence of the life sciences and the physical sciences for developing devices and drugs that can image and combat disease,” Skalak said.

Last 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.

“The 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.”

The 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 science building.

In the new field of nanotechnology, when things get small, big things happen.