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Nanotechnology at Lehigh: It’s a small world, after all

It’s currently a $13 billion “industry” expected to grow 200 times larger over the next decade, but it isn’t really an industry at all.

It’s already made the paint on your car more protective, has eased the dissolving of oral medication into your bloodstream, and kept stains from taking hold on your new living room carpet. Scientists are striving to find new applications, financial experts are sharpening their pencils for the next great industrial revolution, and military strategists are busily preparing for its impact on their ability to maintain security.

The cross-disciplinary Lehigh nano team includes (clockwise from bottom right): Sharon Friedman, Wei-xian Zhang, Andrea Harmer, Martin Harmer, Stephen Cutcliffe, and Brenda Egolf.

It’s nanotechnology – the characterization, design, and manipulation of materials at the atomic or molecular scale. According to Martin Harmer, director, Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology (CAMN), there’s more to nanotechnology than meets – or doesn’t meet, as the case may be – the eye.

“Nanotechnology is a general purpose technology,” he says. “Meaning, our goal is to make it possible for faculty, industry, and government researchers to maneuver within their domain of expertise – to provide cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation, for agriculture, and for industry in general.”

“Material characterization and synthesis at the nano-level holds an amazing amount of promise,” he continues. “However, its pitfalls – social, economic, and environmental -- must be thoroughly understood before widespread application can truly commence, and this is no different than any other major technological breakthrough in history. In the meantime, if nanotechnical research is going to drive any sort of sustained social or economic development over the foreseeable future, encouraging public understanding of the reality behind the hype is absolutely critical.”

It is for this reason that a cross-disciplinary group of Lehigh faculty teamed up with their peers from Harvard, Rice, Georgia Tech, UCLA and the Illinois Institute of Technology to win a five-year, $1.7 million Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center funding grant from the National Science Foundation. Together, the schools will develop databases of information concerning the implications, economic impact and environmental impact of nanotech.

The Lehigh team comprises Martin Harmer as research director; Sharon Friedman in the Journalism Department for assessing the role and impact of the media in nanotechnology, Steve Cutcliffe in the History Department for studying the evolution of nanotechnology in the context of the history of other major technological revolutions, Andrea Harmer in Materials Science and Engineering for educational outreach and studying strategies for engaging pre-college students in nanoscience and engineering, and Wei-xian Zhang in Civil and Environmental Engineering for developing a pilot environmental data bank for nanotechnology.

And although the press has declared “nanotech” as an industry segment unto itself, Harmer believes otherwise. “The real power of nano is evident when it supports discovery and innovation in other areas – areas such as medicine, computing, materials, and environmental engineering. We are certainly proud that Lehigh is one of, if not the, top electron microscopy centers in the world; this provides our researchers with unmatched capability in nanocharacterization. But it is when this research is used to support adjacent research interests – searching for more effective methods to deliver drugs directly to tumors, efforts to remove harmful pollutants from ground water, etc – that the possibilities of nanoscale engineering really take shape.”

“In this way, we are sort of ‘doubly blessed’ here at Lehigh,” Harmer continues. “Within CAMN, we possess an impressive set of tools and expertise to drive nanoscale research across various application areas. And other departments and institutes across campus -- the biosciences, optics, surface sciences and chemical engineering, for example -- participate in nano research as it relates to problems specific to their disciplines. And these are the projects that help us really move forward in our understanding of the practical applications of nanoengineering, and lead to opportunities for innovation in those adjacent disciplines.”

The end result of this cross-disciplinary collaboration, says Harmer, will be Lehigh leading the way in applying nanoengineering techniques and technologies across disciplinary lines, and in understanding their implications.

Harmer also sees an increased curiosity among undergraduates and incoming students. “Certainly the buzz around nano-everything is contributing to greater interest in our nanotechnology minor and the addition of nanoscale training into various degree paths and curricula,” he notes. “And Lehigh has been a leader in this research since long before ‘nanotech’ became one of the buzzwords of the day. Lehigh’s nanocharacterization expertise is among the very best in the world -- another reason why established organizations like NASA as well as start-up firms rely upon Lehigh, and why our students are as prepared as any in the nation to lead the application of nanotechnology into all sectors of industry and society.”

To learn more about nanotechnology at Lehigh, visit the Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

Posted on Tuesday, March 14, 2006

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