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Researchers tout opportunities in nanotech

Nanotechnology will give researchers at MIT "lots of new opportunities and phenomena" to tackle, said Professor Edwin L. Thomas at an Oct. 5 seminar on "Nanotechnology: Building New Materials Atom by Atom, Molecule by Molecule."

Nanotechnology involves creating new matter at the level of atoms, molecules and supramolecular structures, and generating larger structures with fundamentally new molecular organizations. These new materials exhibit novel physical, chemical and biological properties.

MIT was selected in March 2002 as the single academic institution to be awarded a $50 million dollar grant by the U.S. Army for the establishment of an institute to work in partnership with industry to develop nanotechnology for the protection of future soldiers (see MIT Tech Talk, March 20).

Thomas, the the Morris Cohen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), was one of three who outlined research opportunities in nanotechnology and detailed the background, structure and visions of the work to be done at the ISN. The other presenters were Timothy M. Swager, professor of chemistry and associate director of ISN; and Ian Hunter, professor of mechanical engineering and head of the Bio-Instrumentation Lab.

As Thomas explained, "nano" is not a specific link scale you can quote, like meters or inches. Its scale depends on the properties involved, so mechanical properties may become nano at a different scale than optical properties. The challenge is how to create new materials by mixing components on link scales that are very, very fine, he said.

"What appeals to me as a scientist is that when you go to nanoscale, new stuff happens. You get lots of new opportunities and phenomena, and you can put things together in new links. You can make hybrids at a very small link scale. You can get new things, better things, and that's why it's so exciting," said Thomas.

"MIT is the kind of place that if you bring in a really hard problem, lots of people get interested," Thomas continued as he explained that ISN draws on the interests and work of many partners.

"The beauty of MIT is we don't have boundaries in our collaborations," Hunter agreed.

Thirty-five faculty members from eight departments will work with partners from industry (Dupont and Raytheon) and the medical world (Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital). Additional industrial partners will be recruited in the future. Seven research teams are forming in three primary areas: protection, performance enhancement, and intervention and cure. A new building in Tech Square scheduled to open in May will house all equipment and new facilities for ISN.

The ISN is starting with a number of projects growing out of existing work. Swager discussed how electronic polymers can be used to create ultrasensitive sensors for detecting land mines, explosives, nerve gas and nitric oxide, as well as amplifying DNA binding.

Hunter described work to automate the process of material discovery and the need for advances in instrumentation to speed up this discovery. Attempts to produce an artificial muscle or a "super exomuscle" to benefit a wounded soldier will spin off multiple uses beyond the military, he said.

In 1960, physicist Richard P. Feynmann began talking about the theoretical possibilities of manipulating and controlling things on a very small scale. On Saturday, Hunter reminded the audience, "It is worth remembering that the blue whale, the largest living entity, is constructed from nanoscopic entities. Nature scales up from nanoscopic scale." The challenge ahead for the ISN is how to spiral the nanotechnology level up to the microtechnology level, then to the macrotechnology level and finally up to the functional level, he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 9, 2002.

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