CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Through the wonders of modern technology, the world is said to have gotten smaller. Correspondingly, the world of research has grown more minute, a realm where scientists and engineers now routinely work on a scale ranging from the size of small atoms to that of large molecules.
Working at the nanoscale (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter) scientists may develop chemical and biological sensors that will be far more sensitive, selective and cost-effective than conventional systems. Or they might use nanoengineering concepts to create advanced materials, structures and devices for a variety of electronic and photonic applications.
Through numerous avenues of research on nanotechnology, scientists at the University of Illinois are well poised to push back the frontiers of knowledge and make such exciting and beneficial discoveries. The following are a few brief examples of their efforts.
Last fall, the National Science Foundation established six Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers, each with a specific scientific mission. Researchers at the UI are involved in the work at two of those centers.
The NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures is a partnership among the UI, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M. The UI program is centered at the Frederick Seitz Materials Research Laboratory on campus, and involves faculty members Jeff Moore and Yi Lu in chemistry; Charles Zukoski in chemical engineering; and Paul Braun, Jennifer Lewis, Ken Schweizer and Gerard Wong in materials science and engineering.
"Work at the center is addressing fundamental issues underlying the design and synthesis of dramatically improved materials through hierarchical assembly," said Schweizer, the Morris Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the UI and associate director of the center. "The ability to assemble hierarchical systems based on nanoscale building blocks could lead to smart drug delivery systems, bioengineered tissues, and novel nanoscale devices for electronic, magnetic and photonic applications."
One of the center's research thrusts is aimed at the synthesis and assembly of nanoparticle gels and polymer nanocomposites, Schweizer said. "We want to use tailored nanoscale building blocks to control the structure and mechanical properties of macroscopic materials." In another research thrust, the scientists are exploring new strategies for adding biofunctionality to composite materials by incorporating various biomolecules into nanomaterial networks. For example, by creating architectures involving membranes and DNA molecules, Lu and Wong are attempting to exploit the biological self-assembly process as a kind of template to organize magnetic nanoparticles for use in sensors and other devices.
UI researchers Steve Sligar in biochemistry and Chang Liu in electrical and computer engineering are working with the NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Integrated Nanopatterning and Detection Technologies. Based at Northwestern University, this center is using nanotechnology to create patterned substrates with integrated biological components for sensing applications.
Sligar has developed a technique for removing macromolecular receptor proteins from live cell walls and incorporating them into "nanodisks" - membrane bilayer structures about 10 nanometers in diameter. Liu has developed highly integrated microfluidic devices that can transport fluids, perform mechanical and chemical processes on fluids, and execute on-chip combinatorial chemical analysis. One of the center's goals is to take Sligar's nanodisks and put them on various surfaces being developed, and then connect them using Liu's fluidic devices.
"Many of the interesting machines of a living cell are located in the cell's membrane - from the basic transmission of neurological signals to the chemical sensing of taste and smell," Sligar said. "We want to draw from the richness of the biological landscape to provide starting materials that can be linked with microfluidic devices on patterned structures and tailored for highly specific sensor applications."
The UI's emphasis on nanotechnology is also reflected in other ways, such as the recent renaming of the Microelectronics Laboratory as the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory.
"The term 'microelectronics' no longer adequately described all the work being performed in the laboratory," said Ilesanmi Adesida, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the laboratory. "The name change better reflects the mission of the lab, which is to create, support and sustain an environment that facilitates advanced research not only in photonics and microelectronics, but in biotechnology and nanotechnology, as well."
While the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory is a research facility available to scientists both on and off campus, the role of the newly established Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology is intended to be strictly in-house. The center will help focus the efforts of faculty members involved in nanotechnology research, whether they are in biology, chemistry, engineering, physics or some other department, said Adesida, who also is director of the new center. In addition, the center will help promote the university's visibility in nanotechnology and solicit additional research funding.
"We want to promote multidisciplinary research and bring together people who are working with atoms and those who are working on systems for practical applications," Adesida said. "Collaboration in the center offers tremendous flexibility to explore new directions and capitalize upon advances that can occur."
Through such technological advances, the world will no doubt appear to become even smaller.