Nanotechnology has become more and more present in almost all areas of science, and interdisciplinarity becomes a rule without which research can no longer progress. I had the pleasure of talking to Mr. Professor Mark Hersam (because he renames himself as a professor and then a doctor in engineering) from Northwestern University, a material science expert who studies the physical, chemical and biological properties of nanomaterials with possible uses in IT, biotechnology and energy.
In which areas is nanotechnology already applicable, with tangible results for the general public?
Nanotechnology is a deeply interdisciplinary field. It includes elements of physics, chemistry, biology, many elements of engineering and medicine, so the implications of nanotechnology reach all of these sections. The most prominent applications are electronics. All the computers and smartphones we use have nano-sized components, so nanotechnology is all around us through these devices.
However, the newest approaches to future nanotechnology include energy elements such as photovoltaics or solar cells, as well as batteries. Efforts are also being made in the field of water purification and then in medicine, including medication, new forms of diagnosis, or early detection of disease and regeneration of tissues.
So the implications are really extensive.
How complicated is this new branch of science? Can it be thorough since high school or require special university studies?
I think that up to the high school graduation level nanotechnology can be used to motivate students, because deepening the field could be too difficult for a high school student. However, implications can be understood at any age and inspire them to choose science and engineering.
Now there is a problem in the US, and I think in other countries like Romania, to guide talented children to choose this path. In the 1960s, space travel brought a lot of engineers to universities because the students were inspired, but if you want to perform in this area of nanotechnology, you need a high level of education.
What are the major problems of humanity / society that nanotechnology can solve quickly?
I think it can help solve more problems. I mentioned earlier the purification of water. I think the lack of clean water reaches much of the globe. Alternative and renewable forms of energy are other issues that reach most of society, and nanotechnology promises new solutions for them.
In medicine, health is a problem everywhere. New forms of treatment, the detection of diseases from the early stages, will lead to much better therapeutic goals. So, I think nanotechnology could have an impact in solving many of humanity’s problems.
What is the potential of carbon nanotubes and in what time universe could it become the basic technology for humanity?
One of the things well-known in the history of science and especially in the adoption of new materials is that it lasts 20 to 30 years from their discovery and their commercial implementation. A precursor of cabot nanotubes were the ultra-hard diamond coated layers. These were studied in the 1980s and we are only now seeing them used in automotive technologies.
So I think the rule applies to any material, including carbon nanotubes, so the apparent delay is not a problem. The good news is that carbon nanotubes perform extremely well in certain areas. I would say that electronics would be the best candidate. Companies like IBM see carbon nanotubes as the main element of the next generation of computers.
There is also the possibility of using carbon nanotubes in battery-related technologies and this will lead to the development of more autonomous batteries that could be used in portable electronic equipment and we could have batteries to charge and download faster. The former could be used in electric cars, which would load so much faster, and rapid discharge could be used to accelerate faster.
So I think in these areas carbon nanotubes will have an important impact.
I have been writing about the “miracle battery” for 12 years, but it has not yet appeared. Battery-related technologies have developed much slower than the electronic equipment they feed. Can you explain?
The industry is extremely conservative. There is no doubt here. At Northwestern University there are important anode developments that could lead to more efficient batteries. Researchers have been in talks with industry representatives for years, but they are very reluctant to adopt new technologies because they benefit from the quotient.
I believe that progress in this area will therefore be rather slow and sustained than in high jumps. In other areas there may be steeper changes.
You have been awarded the Prize of the Year at Northwestern University for a number of years. What is the secret of effective student education?
I think the secret of education is to understand the level of audience, and if you work in a university, you have to know very well what I know and what your students do not know. Then you have to set a target for them. It must be beyond what I already know, but not unattainable.
If the target is near, they will “stretch” to touch it. Then you set another target to touch, and that helps them learn. If the target is too easy to reach, the students will get bored, if you put it too far away, they will not touch it and remain at the initial level.
What is your most important scientific achievement so far?
I would say that this is represented by my students. So, first of all, I am a teacher and I am convinced that my students’ integrated achievements will surpass anything I can do as a scientist. So this is my pride: my students.
How advanced are our knowledge of nanotechnology? Are we just starting out?
It is a very broad topic because, as I said earlier, nanotechnology is an area that involves many aspects. Almost any field of activity may have accomplishments in the field of nanotechnology. Some elements are better understood than others, but in our lab for nearly 20 years I studied nanomaterials and even a few months ago I discovered another nanomaterial.
I am convinced that other discoveries will follow, and our knowledge of the latest material discovered is certainly less than the carbon nanotubes we have been studying for so long. I think there will be many other opportunities.
Is it very SF the idea of using nanomachines, nanorobots, for medical purposes?
It depends how you define nanobots. It’s a movie called Fantastic Voyage and there are small ships that are injected into the body and that fight the disease with some lasers. Well, this is definitely SF.
However, I believe that nanomaterials present innovative strategies for the administration of medicines. Perhaps there will not be a machine that will administer the drug in a certain way, but the nanomaterial will have a drug release mechanism that can be triggered when it is needed. It is a matter of semantics if we define this nanomaterial as a nanobot.
Can you tell us something about your research on memristors? How will nanotechnology-based electronics look like? How small can a transistor be?
The transistor is the current way to create electronic components, and in the last 50 years microelectronics has made a profit from reducing it. At present, Intel delivers electronics on a scale of about 20 nm. How small could it be? There is a trajectory traced to reach lengths below 10 nm. Such components have already been created by companies like IBM using carbon nanotubes.
There is no scientific question on that scale, but maybe just an economic one. The cost of making the transistor less and less is growing and at some point it may not be economically profitable. That is why there is an interest in discovering the alternative of the transistor in the memristor.
In the memristor, another computational strategy called neuromorphic or brain-like computing is used, and it could allow electronics to overcome the economic hurdle that the transistor hits.
We know you have important achievements in the field of double-carbon carbon nanotubes. What can you tell us about them?
The double-wall carbon nanotube consists of two concentric cylinders, one outside the other, and these two nanotubes can be used in a variety of electronic applications. For example, we could use the inside nanotube as an electric conductor, and on the outside as an electromagnetic shield, something similar to the coaxial cable, but at the nanometer level. Another application would be to use the inner tube as a channel of the transistor and the outer tube as a switch.
How does atomic force microscopy help you in your nanotechnology research?
The atomic force microscope allows us to analyze matter at nanometric level in contrast to an optical microscope in which we use light to magnify an object. The light has a wavelength of hundreds of nanometers, so it’s very difficult to use light to see single-nanometer objects. The atomic microscope can do this and help us visualize and interrogate samples of such dimensions that we operate in the lab.
It is said that carbon nanotubes could be the solution for the future space elevator, which was beautifully described by Arthur C. Clarke in Fountains of Paradise. What do you think? Can we build the super-strong cable needed for the construction of the space elevator?
This is at the SF border. In theory it is possible, but the challenge is represented by the proportions of the project. The ability to build super-resistant cables is certainly plausible, but doing so at the scale required to build a space elevator is unlikely to happen in the near future.
What would you recommend to our readers who want to pursue a career in nanotechnology?
If a young man is interested in nanotechnology, I would recommend that he look at any field of science and technology he is passionate about to deepen that field, perhaps physics, chemistry, natural science or engineering, but also communicate with others who deepen other areas.
And if you can communicate interdisciplinary with advanced knowledge in at least one field, then you are perfect for nanotechnology because that is happening now. There are several specialists, each with his expertise, and if they can communicate, they can work together and solve a problem that none of them can solve individually.
How did you become interested in nanotechnology?
I was inspired by a teacher. When I went to college I studied electrical engineering because I had skills in science and engineering, and my intention was to take an MBA and become an entrepreneur inclined towards the business side. But when I was in college, one of my teachers made a presentation using an equivalent of an atomic microscope, one with an electron scan, with which he showed us images of the atoms we had just seen before a concept in a chemistry book.
But he had a microscope with which I could see them, I could manipulate them at an atomic level, and that seemed just astounding, so I became interested in his studies. Then I talked to him more, and so I learned that even as a teacher I would not have prevented from pursuing entrepreneurial activities. So I could have the experience of discovering as a scientist and, at the same time, be out of college and found a company.
Are there any health risks related to nanoparticles?
It is a very complicated question. With any new material, nano or not, there should be skepticism and concern and tests to determine the implications for health or the environment. Then, after understanding the problem, you need to find solutions to eliminate those risks. I repeat, it is not something about nano, but a general approach.
I recalled earlier about biomedical applications. We did not go through them until we did toxic tests, and we did not just do Northwestern University, but we also required independent lab tests without affiliation with us. We also work with UCLA and the Environmental Protection Agency and we have corroborated the results that have shown us that if carbon nanotubes are not properly handled, there may well be health risks. But if you manipulate and process them correctly, there is no problem. Actually, I think this happens with any material if you abuse it or do not manipulate it correctly.
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Technology of The Future – Romanian point of view