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Nanoscientist addresses field’s potential

Terry A. Michalske, director of biological and energy sciences at Sanda National Laboratories, speaks about nanotechnology during Oct.22 breakfast meeting of the Harpur Forum

The nanotechnology field is transformative and has enormous potential to change lives. The challenge for educators is to train people for things that haven’t yet been figured out, according to Terry Michalske, director of the Biological and Energy Sciences Center at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.

Speaking to the Harpur Forum on Oct. 22, Michalske focused on a few examples of what has already been learned, what is on the horizon and what is even further out in the nano-scale world.

“Nanoscience will change our lives in many ways,” he said. “It will change how we interact.”

Michalske and fellow researchers work at the billionth of a meter scale — a thousand times a thousand times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. “The vital functions of living systems are on that nanometer dimension scale,” he said.

Yet again a thousand times smaller is the atomic world. “We can understand most behaviors of atoms at the individual and billions of atoms scale,” Michalske said. “But when it’s only hundreds of atoms hanging together, we can’t predict how they will behave, sort of like teenagers. That’s one way to think about nanoscience. We’re looking at the emergence of new ideas and new behaviors.”

Understanding and controlling matter at these dimensions brings unique phenomena and can enable researchers to find new applications, he said. “When you go from a size of 20 or bigger nanometers down to a smaller size ... you find different reactions and behaviors you wouldn’t have predicted.”

For example, Michalske said that for those developing scratch-resistant eye glasses, moving things into nanoscale makes them more scratch resistant. “How do we understand this in order to use it?” he asked.

The ability to look at and understand at the nanoscale level has brought us microelectronics that are 90 millimeters in scale and that will continue to get smaller; the iPod scale of about 10 nanometers; and less obvious uses including stain-resistant fabrics, tennis balls that don’t lose their pressure, bacteria-killing silver for refrigerator liners, filters for air conditioners and cell phones.

Michalske said nanoscience also offers amazing potential that will speed medical diagnoses, find ways to purify water and return sight to the blind. “We’re just at the very beginning of where this is going to leave us. As naive as we were in 1999, we’re still  naive today,” he said. “We have the opportunity to write the books. The textbooks haven’t been written yet.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08