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What the Heck is Nanotech?

by Cynthia Tintorri
November 07, 2013

Bob EhrmannNanotechnology. What is it, what is it good for, and why should you care? These questions were all answered  in a lively presentation at Northampton Community College by Bob Ehrmann, managing director at the Penn State Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (CNEU). He came to NCC on November 7 to talk about careers and the educational partnership between NCC and PSU to help train people in this growing field.

Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, which is about 1 to 100 nanometers. How small is a nanometer? It's one-billionth of a meter. If you're having trouble wrapping your brain around that, try this: If a marble were a nanometer, a meter would be the Earth. If you're a visual learner, have a quick look at this short video Ehrmann showed, "How Small is a Nanometer?"

According to Ehrmann, nanotechnology is good because it provides more functionality per square unit of area. For example, the first laptop, circa 1986, weighed 9 pounds and cost around $3,000. Thanks to nanotechnology, the smartphone you may be reading this on weighs a matter of ounces, with even more functionality. That's a result of transistors, the basic component of all electronics, being shrunk to the nanoscale so that, currently, 2 billion of them will fit on a chip.

"Nanotechnology has always existed," Ehrmann contends, "but we weren't able to see it." He showed a photo of the rose window in Notre Dame Cathedral, whose stained glass is an example of the use of nanotechnology before anyone knew what nanotechnology was.

It's only in recent history, with the invention and application of the scanning electron microscope (SEM) and atomic force microscope (AFM) that scientists have been able to understand how and why small structures such as carbon nanotubes and nanowires work, and to manipulate them.

Such manipulation has resulted in applications for industries as diverse as medicine, textiles, household products , energy, biomimetrics (copying nature) and clean water . Ehrmann showed short films about some of those applications. The one that most delighted the audience was for a product ("available at Home Depot right down the road!") called NeverWet, which showed chocolate syrup being poured over -- and rolling right off of -- a white sneaker.

Ehrmann demonstrated nanotechnology in textiles by pouring cola into the pocket of a shirt. Since the fibers of the fabric had been manipulated, nothing leaked from the pocket. He then poured cola through a water filter manufactured with nanotechnology. Clear water came out. "Imagine what this could mean for countries that have no clean water," he asked.

According to Ehrmann, nanotechnology is a trend, not a fad. Industry sources predict that products incorporating nanotechnology will increase by 100 times in the next 20 years. "Trained workers will be needed at all educational levels, from associate degrees to PhDs," he says. The demand may be as many as 2 million workers in the United States by 2020.

As he explains, nanotechnology is another tool that students can put in their "academic toolboxes" to help them get jobs after graduation. That is the purpose of Penn State's Capstone Semester program, part of the Pennsylvania Nanofabrication Manufacturing Technology (NMT) partnership. The summer semester comprises six hands-on courses for students from both community and baccalaureate colleges and universities, in which they are trained for nanotechnology in a variety of industries.

Many of those industries have headquarters and manufacturing facilities right in Pennsylvania, Ehrmann says. When it comes time to apply for a job, "If you have nanotechnology in your academic toolbox, you have that extra edge over everyone else."

To learn more about nanotechnology, visit this site.  To learn more about the Capstone Semester at Penn State, visit www.nano4me.org .  


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