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New UW-Madison NSF center investigates nanotechnology

Associate Professor Paul Nealey

Associate Professor Paul Nealey (large image)

A new National Science Foundation center examines templated synthesis and assembly at the nanoscale as well as the societal implications of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology involves the study of materials and processes at scales so small that they're practically invisible under the lens of almost any microscope. These materials measure between one and 100 nanometers, with a single unit equal to one billionth of a meter. To get some idea of these dimensions, the width of a human hair, for example, is about 50,000 nanometers.

Because these units are so small, materials of this size and processes that occur at this scale often display behaviors that are different than those observed at larger scales, says Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Paul Nealey. Nealey will direct the university's new Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center.

Therein lies the promise of nanotechnology: to identify and understand properties of materials, processes and systems at this small scale and then develop technology based on these discoveries to fabricate new and innovative products that improve our daily lives.

"Nanotechnology has great potential to transform many diverse areas of technology — from making faster and more integrated circuits to building biosensors that detect chemical changes in the environment to developing new classes of anti-microbial materials to revolutionizing health care through decoding the human genome," says Nealey. "One of the grand challenges is to figure out how to fabricate large scale functional assemblies of nanoscopic materials or building blocks to take advantage of the unique properties of materials, processes, and systems at the nanoscale for technological applications."

Under the umbrella of NSEC — one of six new federally funded nanotechnology centers — Nealey will bring together more than 25 chemists, biologists, physicists, and engineers to research directed assembly at the nanoscale. Alongside the development of these assembly processes, researchers also will discuss, examine and evaluate the societal implications of nanotechnology's possible applications. The Holz Center for Science and Technology Studies and UW's La Follette School of Public Affairs will work with the center to build a public dialog about ethical, legal, and policy implications of nanotechnology.

"We know from past experience that it's no longer appropriate to pursue science without thinking about the societal implications at the same time," says Nealey. "One of the most exciting components of our NSEC, that's on equal footing with the science and engineering, is a strong research program in the societal implications of nanotechnology." This research program, he adds, also will to educate the public about this scientific field.

In addition to these efforts, NSEC plans to establish fellowship programs, develop international collaborations and share its facilities and instrumentation with faculty across campus and external academic and industrial researchers.