These days the word nano keeps popping up everywhere, and we aren’t talking about just the iPod nano anymore. We are talking about nanotechnology, a process of working with extremely tiny matter. It was just a concept in 1959, when physicist Richard Feynman first described how scientists would some day be able to manipulate atoms and molecules. Modern nanotechnology was born in 1981, when a new microscope enabled researchers to “see” atoms. For the past 15 years, the United States government has been supporting scientists through the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
Nanotechnology is on President Obama’s mind when it comes to research and the economy. In his third visit to New York’s Capital Region since taking office, the president stopped at the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering on Tuesday, May 8, to promote manufacturing technology.
“I want what’s happening in Albany to happen all across the country,” he said in his speech at the college. The multibillion dollar facility is not only a school, but also a cutting edge research center for nanotechnology. About 2,700 people work there with hundreds of companies as part as a consortium, including some of the biggest names in the computing world, such as Intel and IBM.
The fact that it’s used in many different fields gives us the capability to have revolutions — revolutions in medicine, energy and other areas.
The discoveries and inventions made by nanotechnology scientists are beginning to make their way into products used in everyday life. While it is most familiar in microchips, currently, nanotechnology can be found across all areas — in medicine, electronics, food, fabric, batteries, space, fuels, chemical sensors, sporting goods, cleaner water and better air quality.
Nanotechnology research and partnerships abound on Long Island. At Stony Brook University, departments across campus are working on infrastructure application, enhancing fuel cell performance, improving drug delivery to the body, better tracers for medical imaging technics, and battery technology, among others.
“One of my students described it as crazy,” said Dr. Gary Halada, associate professor of Stony Brook University’s Materials Science and Engineering department. “The fact that it’s used in many different fields gives us the capability to have revolutions — revolutions in medicine, energy and other areas.”
In the future, Dr. Halada predicts the fastest growth in nanotechnology will be in the medical field.
Dr. Henry Hess, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University, concurred, saying, “Better computer chips, cleaner fuels, and better drugs are coming to market which rely on nanotechnology.”
Stony Brook University is also home to Nanoprobes, a company also based in Yaphank, Long Island, which started in the basement of Stony Brook’s Life Science building and continues its research in the Long Island High Technology Incubator. Nanoprobes specializes in gold labeling (found in pregnancy tests), cluster labeling and silver enhancement.
A couple towns over, in Ronkonkoma, Long Island, CVD Equipment Corp. is quickly becoming a leader in making of nanotechnology tools. A division of CVD, First Nano, specializes in manufacturing customized process equipment suitable for research production in nanotechnology, one-dimensional nanostructures and nanomaterials. According to CVD’s annual report, it nearly doubled its sales in 2011 compared to 2010 and saw an even larger increase in profits.
Last year CVD’s business partner, Graphene Laboratories, a Massachusetts high-tech start-up company, relocated on Long Island to the R&D facility at Stony Brook University Incubator in Calverton. Graphene Labs and CVD are leaders in working with graphene materials, the applications of which range from flexible touchscreens to transparent military aircraft and ultrasensitive biosensors.
At Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) provides advanced capabilities for the manufacturing and studying of nanoscale materials. It is one of five nanoscale science research centers being funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Recently, scientists doing research at CFN together with their colleagues at Syracuse University discovered new findings on charge transfer in nanoscale pairings of materials, which can lead to efficient solar cells and other applications.
“There are still many unknowns in nanoscale energy transfer, and thanks to this study we are now closer to optimizing all the fine details,” said Mathew Maye, a Syracuse University chemist.
The biggest challenge in nanotechnology is that not enough of the public is informed about what it is, or what it can do. Dr. Brown, Dr. Halada and Dr. Hess agree that the public should be involved in the development because they will be the most impacted by the discoveries and applications.
“The public needs to be involved because it needs to approve of these products and be informed about actual and perceived risks,” said Dr. Hess.
For that reason, nanotechnology is even a topic within the field of sociology. Any time a disruptive technology becomes a part of everyday life, it has the capability to create revolutions that can have a social impact.
“Nanotechnology is fast growing, especially in consumer products, in all different places and products,” according to Dr. Jennifer Rogers-Brown, assistant professor of sociology at Long Island University, who has written many book chapters and articles on nanotechnology. “It is interesting to see how the public will react, and what risks will be involved, because we just don’t know the risks yet.”
For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.