The Next Small Thing
With new facilities and capabilities, ORNL will help researchers make advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology that could boost Tennessee's economy.
Nanoscale materials can be as small as a benzene molecule, equal to one billionth of a meter, or one nanometer. As the underlying materials for new commercial products get progressively smaller, the economic prospects for nanoscale materials grow larger. Economists estimate that the world market for nanotechnology will exceed $1 trillion by 2015.
The atom-by-atom understanding of functional matter is known as nanoscience. Researchers are discovering that the properties of a material finely divided into an invisible powder or other nanoscale structures are often different from the properties of the same material in bulk form. The gold in earrings, for example, does not rust because it is inert and will not react with oxygen in air. However, gold nanoparticles with diameters of 4 nanometers are highly reactive and may be used to catalyze chemical reactions. Clearly, nanoscience is a revolutionary new scientific field that will change in fundamental ways our understanding of nature.
Equally revolutionary is nanotechnology, which focuses on the development of devices and other systems at length scales between 1 and 100 nanometers. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, researchers seek to combine carbon nanotubes with polymers to form new composites and coatings that promise to be stronger and better able to store hydrogen or to conduct heat, light, and electrical current. Using molecular manufacturing and self-assembly techniques, other researchers are building new devices, such as nanomotors, nanorods, and nanosensors.
In ORNL laboratories, nanofibers tipped with DNA are penetrating and reprogramming living cells. Nanoprobes are following the actions of proteins in cells. According to ORNL Corporate Fellow Tuan Vo-Dinh in his editorial in the new scientific journal NanoBiotechnology, "the futuristic vision of nanorobots patrolling inside our bodies and armed with lightning nanorods that can be activated remotely to recognize and kill diseased cells might someday no longer be the 'stuff of dreams.' "
Understanding biological and physical systems at the molecular level is a major goal of nanoscience research at ORNL. Thanks to new scientific facilities and the right combination of equipment and expertise, ORNL is well positioned to help researchers make new discoveries and develop new devices involving nanoscale materials.
In 2006 the Department of Energy's Spallation Neutron Source at ORNL will be providing researchers with the world's most powerful pulsed beams of neutrons, enabling a more precise understanding of where atoms are and how they move in novel materials.
ORNL also is partnering with industry to build the world's most powerful open scientific computer. By delivering trillions of calculations per second, this marvelous machine will allow researchers to attack previously insoluble problems in nanoscience and nanotechnology. The National Leadership Computing Facility at ORNL will enable scientists to simulate nanoscale materials as large systems of atoms and nanoscale phenomena over long time scales. The facility's incredibly powerful supercomputers will help engineers design functional nanomaterials and engage in the virtual synthesis of new materials.
Nearby on Chestnut Ridge adjacent to the Spallation Neutron Source, the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences is prepared to take advantage of its co-location with SNS and remote access to ORNL's new supercomputer. For example, researchers at the nanocenter will synthesize novel, nanoscale materials that can be analyzed at SNS and modeled at ORNL's computational facilities.
CNMS is providing distinctive research capabilities in four areas: materials synthesis and characterization; nanofabrication; theory, modeling, and simulation; and nanomaterials design. CNMS supports partnerships, collaboration, and education. The nanocenter's overarching goals are to accelerate discovery and drive technological advances for American industry.
Research at CNMS and nanocenters elsewhere should lead to tougher and stronger nanocomposites; nanomembranes and nanofibers for water purification and desalination; more effective catalysts using smaller amounts of precious metals; highly sensitive and selective, solid-state, biological and chemical sensors; long-lasting, rechargeable batteries; improved solar cells and fuel cells; targeted drug delivery through cell walls; neural prosthetics for treating paralysis and blindness; and point-of-care medical diagnostics. In an early project at CNMS, a small, microfluidic machine was devised that shows promise in quickly and reliably synthesizing therapeutic drugs tailored to individual patients' needs.
Commercializing nanotechnology advances based on new knowledge to help Tennessee's economy is a key part of ORNL's agenda. The Laboratory will anchor the East Tennessee Nano Initiative. UT-Battelle, which manages ORNL for the Department of Energy, is helping expand access to venture capital. Having created some 60 new companies since 2000, UT-Battelle is committed to taking ORNL's nanoscience discoveries and using them to help grow Tennessee's economy through the creation of new nanotechnology companies. These firms could provide products and services in the areas of materials, manufacturing techniques, information technology, health care, and energy production. For Tennessee and for the nation, the economic implications of the next small thing could be huge indeed.
Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and External Relations