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The high-tech world of NANOTECHNOLOGY

In a large new building at the University of South Florida, scientists have begun to study and build exceedingly tiny things. The field is called nanotechnology. Inside the $4-million Nanomaterials & Nanomanufacturing Research Center at USF, scientists from USF and elsewhere manipulate individual atoms, molecules and other tiny objects, giving ordinary materials surprising new qualities. That is the promise of nanotechnology: that these new qualities will lead to smaller, faster computers, stronger building materials, and possibly, fantastic-sounding creations such as a"space elevator."

Scientists have formed tiny tubes out of carbon atoms. These "carbon nanotubes," like the blue lattice structure shown at right, are 100 times stronger than steel. They could one day be used in construction or to build spaceships. The tubes also are excellent conductors of electricity, and could be used to manufacture ultra-tiny computers.

- CURTIS KRUEGER, Times staff writer

NANO DREAMS ... AND REALITY ...

Scientists already have used nanotechnology to create products such as a fine fabric coating that prevents staining. Ideas for future applications sound like science fiction, such as a space elevator, shown above, which would be built from super-strong nano-engineered materials to haul cargo away from Earth. Other ideas include:

+ A tiny vision-restoring device that would be implanted directly in the retina.

+ Miniscule machines that would travel through the bloodstream and release medicine inside the body.

+ Super-efficient solar cells and computers.

... AND NIGHTMARES?

The tiny creations of nanotechnology have prompted concern about how they could affect human safety and the environment. For example, it's not yet known what effect tiny "nanoparticles" would have when entering the body. Thereare even doomsday scenarios such as the Michael Crichton novel Prey, about nanorobots run amok.

A DELICATE SCIENCE

The 14,500-square-foot Nanomaterials & Nanomanufacturing Research Center at USF features a "clean room," shown here, to prevent contaminating delicate work products. The center also owns a a transmission electron microscope (see below), an atomic force microscope and a machine called a "focused ion beam." The center staff does not direct the research here, but makes the labs available for qualified researchers.

SEEING SMALL

Nanotechnology uses a measurement, nanometers, so small it is hard to visualize. Here, research scientist Yusuf Emirov uses aspecialized carbon sample to calibrate the transmission electron microscope at the USF center. To work on such a small scale, the center uses the microscope, which is so powerful users can see individual atoms of some substances, such as gold.

HOW SMALL IS NANO-SMALL?

+ A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

+ A billionth of a meter is 90,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

+ By comparison, the length of this bar, 1.577 inches, equals one-billionth of the distance around Earth.

Sources: USF, National Nanotechnology Initiative, New York Times

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