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February 4, 2005
Volume 42, No. 7


Small Wonder: Scientists explore the brave new (little) world of nanoscience
Grand re-opening reveals new and improved Burge
Hawkeye docs and trainers think fast and score with lifesaving move at football game dinner
Staff orientation offers some new tidbits for old-timers

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The University of Iowa

The University of Iowa

Small Wonder: Scientists explore the brave new (little) world of nanoscience

Photo of Sarah Larsen in a laboratory
Chemistry professor Sarah Larsen is one of many faculty members across campus introducing UI students to nanoscience.

If Vicki Grassian were to pop open a vial of ultraminiature iron oxide particles, the stuff would escape in a puff of dust and spread through the air. It’s hard to think a little dust could make much difference. But Grassian, professor of chemistry in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is one of at least several dozen scientists on the University of Iowa campus intensely interested in looking into a strange world of almost unimaginably small things that could have gigantic effects.

Grassian is studying nanoscience—science that takes place between one and 100 nanometers (one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; 10 nanometers are 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair). It’s the same small science that gives us khaki pants advertised to knock out stains and wrinkles and that inspires researchers to find ways to boost the efficiency of our cars and change the way doctors treat cancer.

“We are only beginning to see the possibilities nanoscience can show us,” says Grassian, who holds a joint appointment as professor of chemical and biochemical engineering in the College of Engineering.

Scientists at The University of Iowa are exploring possibilities that could change every aspect of daily life, from medical treatment and environmental pollution to computer circuitry. Nanoscience research is taking place in dozens of the University’s departments and programs, including biology, chemistry, dentistry, engineering, mathematics, pharmacy, physics, and English. The research ranges from the practical to the sublime, covering environmental science, computational chemistry and molecular modeling, semiconductor devices, pharmaceutics, and much more—even science fiction.

Size Matters

Scientists at The University of Iowa are interested in nanoscience because materials change fundamentally when they are reduced to the nano level. Zeolite crystals, for example, ordinarily (that is, at the micron level or above) look like a white powder, but when the crystal size is cut down to 20 nanometers, a transparent film forms, making it good for optical applications, according to Sarah Larsen, associate professor of chemistry.

Photo of magnified fibers
A scanning electron microscope in the UI Central Microscopy Research Facility produced these images of rectangular fibers formed by the self-assembly of the nanocrystalline silicalite.

“Suddenly, the size dictates the properties,” says Larsen, who shows her undergraduates how to make solar cells from the nanosized inorganic materials they find in raspberry juice. “You can make old materials do new stuff.”

In the old days, scientists thought the properties of a material depended only on composition and phase (solid, liquid, or gas), Larsen says. With the new knowledge that size also matters, she can investigate novel chemical properties of nanocrystals to speed the absorbency and breakdown of toxic wastes, and colleague Ned Bowden, assistant professor of chemistry, can study how nanorods—small wires that look like microscopic pencils—might improve medical imaging technology and the way medications reach targeted parts of the body.

Photo: Test tube filled with clear liquid.
The test tube is part of a nanoscience class experiment where undergraduates synthesize iron oxide nanocrystals.

But even an enthusiast like Grassian hesitates to call this work new. For many researchers, a UI symposium last year was their first real opportunity to get a handle on the nanoscientist label they find themselves wearing.

“We scientists have been working on the nanoscale for a long time, ever since we’ve known about molecules and atoms,” Grassian says. “The difference now is we are paying attention in new ways. What’s also happening is that other disciplines are moving more toward things we chemists and physicists have been thinking about with molecules and atoms. It’s a lot of fun, and I believe it has already changed the way we think about science.”

Nano Literacy

The new way of thinking about science is seeping into the curriculum—and not just for science majors.

“Everybody should be educated about this,” says chemistry professor Larsen, who has developed lab lessons in nanoscience to suit every student from advanced chemistry and pre-med majors to English and art majors. “We want scientifically literate students of all kinds.”

Engineering students also can find nanoscience lessons in their classrooms and the labs, and physics and astronomy students can study and work with researchers who use nanotechnology—the tools of nanoscience, such as atomic force microscopes, scanning tunneling microscopes, and scanning electron microscopes, and other devices—to not only observe but also manipulate individual atoms.

“We can use these instruments to pick up an atom and move it from one place to another,” says Thomas Boggess, professor and chair of physics and astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Brooks Landon thinks that sounds like science fiction. It’s almost impossible to imagine, says the professor and chair of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“It’s hard enough picturing one-billionth of anything, let alone thinking about moving something that small,” says Landon, who has spent most of his career in the scholarly study of science fiction literature and movies. “You can’t really see what you’re talking about in nanoscience, even with the best instruments. If you read the scientific reports, they read like science fiction, because so much of it is speculative and everyone is having to imagine what is going on at the nanoscale level.”

Enormous Responsibility

Landon says science fiction writers may help scientists imagine possibilities—both the potentials and the risks. Even as writers ponder the dark side of the small science in popular paperbacks like Michael Crichton’s , scientists around the country are raising very real red flags about nanosized molecules that could damage the lungs and even the brains of animals.

Grassian wants to make sure nanoscientists have an opportunity test whether nanoparticles will harm people or the environment before the small world of nanoscience arrives in full force. For her part, she’s using federal funding to run toxicology studies with experts in the College of Public Health on new materials manufactured from nanoscale building blocks. That kind of preventive work is perhaps the most important instance of nanoscience compelling scientists to think in a new way, she believes.

“We’ve been too used to focusing on the applications with little thought to the implications,” she says. “Look at how we handled chlorofluorocarbons in the 1950s. We thought they were the most fantastic thing in the world—good refrigerants, good for our cars—until we found out years later that they were creating a hole in the ozone layer. Now we’re trying to understand the risks before we let nanoparticles get into our streams and our air and our crops.”

English professor Landon acknowledges that those who control and manipulate this very small world have enormous responsibility—maybe even the power to make the dreams of science fiction come true.

“Science fiction writers often imagine a better world,” he says. “There’s talk of using nanoscience to cure disease. At the same time, Revlon holds more nanotech patents than any other corporation. So are we going to change the world? Or just invent lipstick that sticks on lips better? I think most scientists recognize the transformative potential. We’ll have to see what they do with it.”

by Gary Kuhlmann



Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright The University of Iowa 2005. All rights reserved.


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