June 1, 2006 Nanotechnology has already brought advances such as self-cleaning windows and energy-efficient LED lighting, and could soon deliver medical breakthroughs. To educate the public about nanotechnology's promise, the National Science Foundation has slated $20 million to fund a network of interactive exhibits at 100 museums around the country.
MADISON, Wis.--Nanotechnology is the big buzz word in the world of science. It's going to impact just about everything we do, touch and see. And this next big thing is extraordinarily small.
You've heard the word, but do you know what nanotechnology is?
University of Wisconsin-Madison engineer Wendy Crone is on a mission. She and her interns are creating user-friendly exhibits to teach the public about the nanoworld.
"Nanotechnology is already starting to affect our lives, and it's anticipated that over the next 20 years it's going to have major impact on everything around us," Crone tells DBIS.
Nanotechnology means working at the scale of molecules. Crone's exhibits show just how small that scale is. "When you put nano in front of meter that means that's a billionth of a meter. So that means that you can fit 1 billion nanometers in one meter," she says. You'd have to slice one hair into 50,000 distinct strands to get a strand one-nanometer thick.
Nanotechnology is the secret behind how self-cleaning windows work and why LEDs are so energy-efficient.
"I think that nanotechnology, I mean, everyone continues to talk about it, is the next big thing," says intern Anne Vedder.
It might even save your life. Drug-coated nanoparticles will soon precisely deliver therapy to organs and tumors. Crone says it's going to be everywhere, and you probably won't even know that it's inside the products that you're using.
The National Science Foundation is giving $20 million to fund the national Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Network), which will develop interactive exhibits to teach the public about nanotechnology. The network's goal is to have these exhibits in 100 museums across the United States in the next five years.
BACKGROUND: The engineering faculty, staff and students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are working with some of the nation's top science museums to create hands-on exhibits about nanotechnology. The effort is part of the $20 million Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, which aims to develop innovative materials and vehicles to increase the public's knowledge and understanding of nanotechnology through exhibits.
ABOUT NANOTECHNOLOGY: Nanotechnology is science at the size of individual atoms and molecules: objects and devices measuring mere billionths of a meter, smaller than a red blood cell. At that size scale, materials have different chemical and physical properties than those of the same materials in bulk, because quantum mechanics is more important. For example, carbon atoms can conduct electricity and are stronger than steel when woven into hollow microscopic threads. Nanoparticles are already widely used in certain commercial consumer products, such as suntan lotions, "age-defying" make-up, and self-cleaning windows that shed dirt when it rains. One company manufactures a nanocrystal wound dressing with built-in antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. On the horizon is toothpaste that coats, protects and repairs damaged enamel, as well as self-cleaning shoes that never need polishing. Nanoparticles are also used as additives in building materials to strengthen the walls of any given structure, and to create tough, durable, yet lightweight fabrics.
SIZING THINGS UP: The tiny size scale makes it a challenge to translate nanotech research into something museum visitors can see, touch and comprehend, especially in an interactive format. UW-Madison already has the Nanoworld Discovery Center, which does just that. Among the exhibit's features is a segment about ferrofluids: tiny magnetic particles that flow like a liquid. They are used to damp vibrations and eliminate excess energy in expensive stereo systems. Visitors also learn about such applications as stain-resistant clothing, as well as compare incandescent bulbs to light-emitting diodes to learn how nanomaterials can help conserve energy.