The next issue of the ORNL Review will explore the world of nanoscience and nanotechnology, where objects are as small as one-billionth of a meter (nanometer), or the size of a few atoms. Interest in nanoscience has been around since the 1980s when scientists learned how to assemble atoms and molecules into useful configurations such as nano-crystals. Today nanocrystals are used to make more protective sunscreens and better cosmetics. Interest in the field of nanoscience grew with the 1985 discovery of the buckyball—a cluster of 60 carbon atoms that resembled a soccer ball or one of Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes. Since then researchers have been tinkering with a few atoms at a time, trying to coax them into assembling nanomotors, nanogears, nanopumps, nanowires, and nanorobots. Because of their small dimensions, nanomaterials can exhibit entirely new materials properties.
Brave New Nanoworld
Using their world-class materials characterization expertise and equipment, ORNL researchers are making advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology that will be described in the next issue. The driving motivations for much of this research on making things very small using new materials include the semiconductor world's needs to (1) increase the speed and number of transistors on computer chips to maintain the current rate of improvement in computing power, and (2) reduce the cost of fabricating chips. In addition, ORNL researchers are developing ideas for new projects in nanoscience and nanotechnology because the Laboratory and federal government are supporting a new initiative in this area. The researchers who receive funding will assemble multidisciplinary teams to solve complex problems. Their mission? To learn how to exploit the strange quantum effects of the nanoworld for doing molecular manufacturing (sometimes called nanofacturing). The research could result in better and cheaper electronic equipment, including palm-size computers and flat panel displays, as well as more efficient solar electric cells.