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Wednesday, March 12, 2008 09:23 pm

Tiny wonders

Illinois is safe from microscopic people-eating robot ninjas — for now

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Anyone who’s shattered a pricey cell phone on the sidewalk, gagged on the smell of a roommate’s stinky sweat socks, or endured a serious illness should appreciate the various nanotechnology-research endeavors at universities around Illinois. “Nanotechnology is likely to be as important as the Industrial Revolution was 100 years ago or the Computer Revolution was 20 or 30 years ago. This is probably the technology that is going to usher in the next big change in society,” says Joseph Muskin, educational coordinator for the Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Similar to how the invention of the automobile accelerated the growth of suburbs and the proliferation of fast-food dining, nanotechnology won’t just yield “lots of cool new products”; it will bring about “a sweeping effect — good and bad — over society,” Muskin says. In 2006, PC Magazine named stretchable silicon, developed in 2005 at the U of I, as the No. 1 “coolest technology you’ve never heard of.” A thousand times smaller in diameter than a human hair, the bendable material can be used as a substitute for traditional rigid electronics components. Finding commercial applications for the silicon is still a little ways off, but several nanotech products are already on the market and in wide use. Wrinkle-free and stain-resistant fabrics and clothing, car waxes, skin-care products, optics, sporting goods, and digital electronics are among the most common applications right now. Also available are socks containing tiny particles of silver that prevent the formation of bacteria and fungus and pencils that release aromas such as rosemary, mint, lemongrass, and green tea, aimed at helping students boost their learning capacity. The medical field may reap the most immediate and lasting rewards of nanotechnology. Researchers at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale are working on a method that uses nanotechnology to detect cancers by differentiating between tumor cells and healthy ones under magnetic resonance imaging. Yong Gao, an SIU chemist involved with the project, explains that a patient could be injected with nanoparticles designed to seek out tumor cells, which are more acidic, and emit radio waves that would show up during an MRI scan.
Realizing nanotech’s full potential will be a challenge. One study, “Barriers to Nanotechnology Commercialization,” co-authored in 2007 by several faculty members of the University of Illinois at Springfield, revealed that despite the fact that nanotech has received $3 billion in federal money since 2003 and is on track to become the government’s most widely funded scientific initiative since the space race, “there have been no ‘home runs’ ” in efforts to commercialize nanotechnology. Roadblocks identified in the report include deficient infrastructure; lack of policy; funding shortfalls; and immigration laws that prevent foreign researchers from working in federal labs. But arguably the biggest obstacle is public fear about the safety of some nanotechnology products. In some scenarios that lean less toward science and more toward fiction, nanotechnology research unleashes shape-shifting molecules with the potential to dominate the planet and wipe out the human race.
Muskin says people shouldn’t be concerned about that — not yet, anyway. “No one is making such self-replicating units yet, but it’s something that scientists worry about,” he says. “Someday that may be a real possibility.”
The Illinois State Museum, 502 S. Spring St., hosts “Experience the Great Nanotechnology Revolution,” 1-3 p.m. Saturday, March 15. The event is free and open to everyone.
Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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