Imagine the tiniest of particles—so small that a single human hair would seem colossal in comparison. Could something so minute hold the potential to change life as it’s known today?
Nanoscientists, who work at the nano level—where size and distance are measured in billionths of meters—are proving that statement true. They are responsible for groundbreaking discoveries in areas ranging from medicine (including life-saving technologies) to wireless communication. Nanotechnology can make bridges significantly stronger, make computers faster and smaller, remove the tiniest contaminants found in air and water, and even improve anti-wrinkle cream. Many say the most significant discoveries are yet to come.
Since its founding in 1988, the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln has been at the forefront of this field. Now, UNL nanoscientists have a state-of-the-art research facility that will keep them positioned on the forefront of research in one of the highest-priority national programs, and give them momentum in their role as drivers of economic development.
Located at 16th and W streets, the newly completed 32,000-square foot building will provide centralized research facilities for more than 80 physics, chemistry, engineering and other faculty members from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, and Engineering, and the Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources. The building conveniently adjoins Jorgensen Hall, UNL’s home of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, which was built in 2010.
The facility will offer researchers access to specialized tools like a $2 million electron microscope. It also creates high-tech research space, including a clean room that eliminates dust particles, which can hamper such meticulous work. The center’s administrative offices also are part of the new building.
A dedication ceremony is tentatively scheduled for this fall. Details will be announced at a later date.
The building will be named for UNL College of Engineering alumnus Don Voelte and his wife, Nancy Keegan, who recently completed her two-year term as chair of the University of Nebraska Foundation’s Board of Directors and remains on the board. They donated $5 million toward the building. They cited UNL’s established leadership in nanoscience among factors playing into their decision, along with the field’s reach into their own backgrounds and interests.
“Excellence in nanoscience requires talent and imagination, qualities that we know are abundant at the University of Nebraska,” Keegan said.
In addition to the Voelte-Keegan gift, a $7 million competitive federal grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and a university commitment funded the $14 million building. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is a non-regulatory agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce; the funding comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Fostering a collaborative approach
Researchers previously had been spread across several buildings on campus. They
will continue to maintain offices in their home departments, but will now benefit
from a shared research area to enhance collaboration.
“This collaborative way of doing research now is much, much more powerful,” said David Sellmyer, center director and an accomplished nanoscientist. “It will allow us to better confront the grand science and technology challenges facing our country.”
In a nod to UNL’s leadership in this area, the National Science Foundation established the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at UNL in 2002 to carry out research on magnetic structures and materials on a nanoscale. It is part of a network of elite centers across the nation and is embedded in UNL’s nanoscience center.
UNL is one of several universities in the Big Ten Conference to have a materials research center, but Sellmyer said to have a dedicated facility of this caliber is rare.
“Our incorporation of nanoscience is what sets us apart,” he said.
The complexity of the scientific challenges UNL’s nanoscientists are confronting makes the interdisciplinary approach a necessity, said Christian Binek, an associate professor of physics.
Among Binek’s special interests, which he shares with his collaborators Peter Dowben, and Kirill Belashchenko, is in the field of “spintronics.” He’s focused on changing electrically how an electron or a group of electrons spin to create an advanced generation of electronic devices. Like many other UNL nanoscientists, Binek’s research goals include creating the technology that will make devices smaller, and capable of storing more data and using less energy. Such work will set a new direction for computers, smartphones and portable data storage devices, among other advances.
Discoveries for the near-term
Nanotechnology lies at the heart of the work undertaken by chemists Jody Redepenning and Stephen DiMagno. Redepenning has developed a material that among other uses can be used for bone replacement. His patented discovery involves a monomer, L-lactide, which is made in Nebraska from the ethanol refining process and when heated, exhibits mechanical properties similar to living bone. DiMagno, meanwhile, developed a process to make imaging agents for staging and managing certain cancers, including pediatric cancers, cardiac disease, as well as various neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Materials of the future
Xia Hong, assistant professor of physics, and Alexander Sinitskii, assistant professor of chemistry, are among UNL’s nanoscientists working with graphene, which has been called the material of the future. Graphene’s discovery in 2004 led to the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. It is a natural two-dimensional material in which electrons can travel much faster than in other twodimensional conductors. This will mean enhanced data transfer rates for devices that use radiofrequency transistors, like cell phones, satellite communication, radar systems and portable radios. Graphene’s flexibility, transparency and resiliency also is expected to revolutionize digital displays, which could someday make computer screens or tablet devices flexible enough to fold and put in your pocket.
In good company
The center continues to make an impact whether spinning off its discoveries into companies that contribute to economic growth, like Rare Earth Solar—Nebraska’s first solar panel manufacturer —or partnering with state and national industries. UNL’s nanoscientists have collaborative business ventures and interactions with several companies, including Lincoln-based J.A. Woollam Co., Rieke Metals, Molex, Teledyne ISCO, Vishay Dale Electronics, among many others.
Studying the nanoscale world
UNL chemist Stephen DiMagnoDiMagno, a member of the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience, talks about his research and a National Science Foundation program that supports it
What is nano?
Nano is the scientific term meaning one-billionth. So a nanometer is one one-billionth of a meter. A human hair measures about 50,000 nanometers in size. When objects are below 100 nanometers in size or on a nanoscale, they exhibit unexpected chemical and physical properties such as remarkably lower resistance to electricity or faster chemical reactions.
If a six-foot-tall person were 100 nanometers tall, the width of a human hair would appear as tall as seven and a half Nebraska State Capitol buildings.
What is nanotechnology and why is it important?
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of material at the nanoscale to take advantage of these properties. It is changing life as we know it and has the potential for groundbreaking discoveries well into the future. It has paved the way to major advances in the fields of medicine and technology, and has developed new materials for manufacturing and other uses. In turn, those developments affect our economy, culture and the environment.
what are some applications?
Nanotechnology is responsible for making computers, cell phones and similar electronic and communication devices smaller, more energy efficient, and capable of storing more data. In medicine, the technology is used in drug delivery, tissue engineering, and to make contrast agents for use in the imaging of and therapeutic treatment of certain cancers. Nanotechnology is also responsible for increasing the efficiency of energy production. It allows for the advancement of solar power, for example.
What is NCMN's mission?
The Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience (NCMN) strives for excellence in research, graduate and postdoctoral education and service in materials science, engineering and nanoscience and is on the forefront of research in one of the nation’s highest priority national programs.
Who studies nanotechnology?
The exploration of nanotechnology is going on around the world and includes researchers from many different fields including physics, chemistry, materials science, engineering, biology and medicine. At UNL, more than 80 faculty members, including many from the College of Arts and Sciences, are involved.
| Spring/Summer 2002|
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