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  • Sun April 13 2008
  • Posted Apr 13, 2008
By MIKE FERGUSON Baker City Herald Nanotechnology is a really small idea that could yield big results in medicine, construction and energy production, among other sectors. But nanotechnology — rearranging atoms to get elements to act in new and useful ways — is still in its infancy. It's also potentially fraught with danger — or at least unforeseen consequences. Amanda Thomas and Anders Liljeholm, who work at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, offered a workshop at the Baker Library Wednesday on possible gains in alternative energy that nanotechnology might bring about. "Nano" is the Greek word for dwarf — and it's indeed a tiny measurement. It is one-billionth of a meter. Your fingernails grow a nanometer every second. A single grain of salt is a billion times bigger than a nano crystal of salt. By contrast, about a billion grains of salt would fill Fenway Park in Boston. It can be mind-boggling to imagine what happens when you rearrange the atoms of one of the universe's 120 or so elements. After all, sodium and chlorine, when they're combined, make something we use on our dinner table — salt. But separately, as Liljeholm pointed out, "it's an explosive metal and a poisonous gas." Inexpensive pencil lead and priceless diamonds are both composed of carbon atoms — they're just arranged differently. A nano-sized piece of gold is red, and stained glass artists centuries ago figured out a way to use the tiny pieces for a ruby red effect in their art in cathedrals across Europe. But take a tiny knife and cut that nano chunk of gold again, and it turns blue. Zinc oxide — the goopy stuff lifeguards smear on their noses to protect against sunburn — is normally white, but it's clear in its nano form. Copper is normally flexible — except nano copper, which is hard and brittle. Liljeholm sees plenty of application for energy uses. Carbon nano tubes are "really good conductors, much more so than copper wires," he said. The trouble is, they're just a nanometer wide, "so we can't make them very fast." A carbon tube is so strong that one as thick as a human hair could pick up a car. Scientists dream of using them to build an elevator into space. They're already used in some everyday applications, including bicycle tires. Nanotechnology could make light-emitting diode (LED) lights cheaper to manufacture — a good thing, since LED lights, though they're 100 times more efficient than incandescent lights, are also 100 times more expensive. There's no waste and nothing left over making a nano LED light, he said. "It's like building with LEGOs instead of carving something out of marble," he said. One of the big challenges will be to regulate the new products that the technology brings along. Thomas said one good example is the nano lifeguard goop, which is clear and is regulated only as a cosmetic. Scientists don't yet know what kind of effect the product might have on the human body over time. "Part of the problem is that (manufacturers) don't even know what to call it," she said. "How can you regulate something you can't describe? Nano sunscreen could turn out to be perfectly harmless, but it's a young science. We're in the same stage today as computers were in the 1950s." The workshop included video clips from scientists involved in nanotechnology exploration. J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director for a Minnesota consulting company called Fresh Energy, said the first step helping companies to save on energy costs is to figure out how and where they're wasting energy. "There are a lot of opportunities for moving from old wasteful technology to new innovative technology that light, heat, cool and power industries," she said. "You want to start with lower-cost investment that will give you the biggest bang for your buck. It's important to move quickly, and energy efficient technology is the best place to start." Jim Hutchison, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon and the director of the university's Materials Science Institute, said it's already commercially viable to charge a green car battery (produced through nanotechnology) in 10 minutes, rather than overnight. The technology is likely to help with energy storage capacity, too, he said, since nano materials have a large amount of surface area. But there are potential downsides, he said, including unintentional harm to the environment or human health, including toxicity. Other harms to humans and animals could include bioaccumulation, since the material doesn't degrade like other materials, but instead accumulates in human tissue. "In low levels it may not be a hazard," Hutchison said, "but in high levels it could pose harm." And there are the risks of production, he said. That process "needs to be greened as well," he said. At the end of the workshop, those assembled pretended to be on the board of the National Science Foundation. They were given $100 million to spend in three areas: research into conservation, education and improving existing technologies; nanotechnology, and non-nanotechnology dependent alternative energy technologies. After some discussion — and some mythical developments posed by Thomas to try to get those in attendance to change their minds — the group decided to put the largest share into existing technologies, then nanotechnology, then conservation and education. For more information on OMSI's foray into nanotechnology education, visit www.omsi.edu/forum.

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