It’s a Small World! Exploring Science at the Tiniest Scale

Marcus Jones, Chemistry, UNC Charlotte

Think small. Think really, really small—smaller than anything you ever saw through a microscope. Think atoms and molecules, and now you’re there. You’re down at the nanoscale: a hundred thousand times thinner than a human hair, and there’s a whole universe down here! There’s “plenty of room at the bottom” – that’s what Richard Feynman correctly predicted more than 50 years ago when he envisioned a new science, a nanoscale science, in which we use chemistry, physics and biology to build structures and devices out of the fundamental components of matter, explore their amazing properties and put them to use in beneficial ways.

Nanoscale science is a relatively new field that has generated worldwide excitement. It is a truly multi-disciplinary science, where boundaries between the traditional disciplines are blurred. Working at the nanoscale, chemists, physicists and biologists are striving together to create new tools, products and technologies that address some of the world’s biggest challenges, from the generation of clean, secure, affordable energy to the development of medical devices and drugs to detect and treat diseases more effectively with fewer side effects.

But what’s so special about nanoscale science? The short answer is that materials can have different properties at the nanoscale – some are better at conducting electricity or heat, some are stronger, some have different magnetic properties, and some reflect light better or change colors as their size is changed. It is this ability to ‘tune’ the properties of nanoscale materials that make them so attractive to scientists.

We will explore a wide range of topics related to nanoscale science and there will be accessible content for anyone teaching science from elementary to high school. We will talk about ideas of scale – how can we think about something so small? We will look at the microscopes and tools that scientists use to envision and manipulate such small objects. We will develop ideas about the structure of nanomaterials and their resulting properties and interactions. Nanomaterials interact strongly with the world around them and we will discuss the chemical bonding and chemical interactions they undergo. They also interact strongly with light, and often in unexpected ways, which will be demonstrated with simple spectroscopic experiments.

In the context of renewable energy generation and storage, we will talk about electricity and magnetism and explore how nanomaterials are able to convert, conserve and transfer energy in a solar cell where fundamental processes such as acquisition of charge and interactions between charged particles are tremendously important. Indeed, nanomaterials could provide a pathway to cheap and abundant renewable electricity and in that context we will discuss the need for sustainable energy and the economic and environmental factors that are driving the search for alternative sources.

In biology, nanomaterials have been used to identify structures in cells through fluorescence microscopy and they are being developed as drug delivery platforms and cancer treatment agents. For example, bio-nanomaterials such as DNA are being used to build nanoscale structures to diagnose and treat disease, and carbon nanotubes, another intriguing nanoscale material, are being used to destroy tumors. We will also discuss the impacts of some nanomaterials on the environment and how scientists are just starting to understand their long term effects.

Nanoscale science gives us a great way to see some of the interconnections between the traditional disciplines. We will talk about different scientific fields interchangeably and the resulting curriculum units need not be based in either chemistry or physics or biology, but incorporate topics from all three.

Finally, to expose teachers to research in nanoscale science, funding is available for up to two Fellows to spend six weeks doing real research in our laboratory at UNC Charlotte. This would take place during summer of the seminar year. During this time the selected teachers will be able to work on a specially designed short-term project, present their results at group meetings and contribute to a peer-reviewed publication. Hopefully the experience will inspire the Fellows to transfer some of this practical experience to the classroom.