Small Wonder

Nanotechnology Lab Does Big Research on Atomic Level

Physics professor David Schaefer works with students in the Nanotechnology Lab.
Physics professor David Schaefer works with students in the Nanotechnology Lab.

One way TU is bolstering its physical science research credentials is by thinking small. Very, very small.

TU's Nanotechnology Laboratory, located in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geosciences, studies structures and interactions of materials on the nanometer length scale. How small is a nanometer? At a billionth of a meter, one nanometer is about 10 atoms wide. A human hair is about 100,000 nanometers in diameter.

Faculty and students conduct research in the Nanotechnology Lab using a new, state-of-the-art instrument called a scanning probe microscope. Physicists, chemists, biologists and geologists use these instruments to not only "see" and manipulate nanometer-size objects, but to measure characteristics such as magnetic forces, friction forces and adhesion forces over an area covering a mere tenth of a millimeter square.

Physics professor David Schaefer brought his homemade scanning tunneling microscope to Smith Hall when he helped establish TU's Nanotechnology Lab in 1996. After receiving grants from the National Science Foundation in 1998 and 1999, TU purchased two commercially built scanning probe microscopes for its advanced physics labs, classroom teaching and student projects.

Students participating in TU's Nanotechnology Lab are involved at every level and aspect of practical research. "We want them to gather and analyze novel data, present this new data at conferences and to publish it, and not just conduct classic experiments" notes Schaefer.

In one recent experiment the adhesive force of crop-damaging fungal spores is measured at the individual spore level—between one and five microns long—to test the efficacy of spore growth inhibitors. Students also use the microscopes to practice nanolithography, writing lines as small as three nanometers high over distances as long as 50 microns in length, on the surface of silicone, a key component of all computer microprocessor chips.

Recent graduates who studied in the Nanotechnology Lab are not only getting into top-notch graduate research programs, but in many cases have their pick because their background includes invaluable hands-on experience.

Schaefer says that in addition to TU's long-standing reputation as a teaching institution, many of his faculty peers have come here because TU's reputation as an institution performing high quality practical research has increased tremendously over the past decade.

"When TU received its first National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation grant in 1999—and we've received three more since then—it signified a change in the way that the greater scientific community thought about us," says Schaefer.

"We're no longer considered solely a teaching institution but a place that conducts interesting and important research with real-world applications."

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Related links

  • Schaefer receives Elkins Professorship
  • TU physicist taps undergrads for cutting-edge nanotech work
  • Nanotechnology Lab
  • Department of Physics, Astronomy & Geosciences
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