The Wow of Nano
3 August 2012

by tmartin on August 4, 2012

FREQUENT READERS KNOW I’m fascinated with scale. So today, get ready to stretch down to the teeniest tiniest particles because I’ve been reading about a whole slew of truly mind-bending feats.

First, let’s visit Purdue University, where a few months ago physicists working with their colleagues at the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales, created a transistor from a single atom of phosphorus. (

Transistors play a sort of traffic director role in a circuit, managing the flow of current and letting signals stop or go. No transistors, no circuits, no electronic devices as we know them today.

These puppies have already shrunken into the nanosphere. If you have the latest and greatest chip inside your favorite electronic gadget, say Intel’s current Ivy Bridge/Sandy Bridge technology, it might be packing a few billion 22 nanometer (nm) transistors on its chips.

But these researchers have just taken the transistor to the atomic level. Literally. So let’s restate this. Key building block of electronic devices the size of an atom.

Can’t quite picture it? Ok, whip out that nano-ruler! One phosphorus atom measures .01 nanometers across. That’s .01 of one-billionth of a meter. In comparison, a fine strand of human hair measures about 100,000 nanometers wide.

Of course there’s the small detail that this atomic transistor can only work at minus 196 Celsius, the temperature of liquid nitrogen, but hey, why quibble over a detail like that! By the way, this same research team last January created a nanowire of phosphorus and silicon which behaved like a copper wire … except it measured in at one atom deep and four atoms wide.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Southern California have developed 4 nm nanocrystal solar cells. These bitty babies can float in ink – well, ok, a very special ink! – and you can use this ink to create printed solar harvesting devices. (

Once researchers figure out how to create these nanocyrstals from something less toxic than the current cadmium base (another nano-wrinkle), we could see next generation flexible plastic solar panels or even panel printed fabrics. Car interiors that charge your electric fuel cell anyone?

Speaking of fuel cells, elsewhere in California, researchers at Stanford announced that they’ve created nano-sized carbon rods to use as a catalyst in fuel cells, providing a stable and economic alternative to the platinum and palladium used as a catalyst today. (

The one atom-thick pure carbon nanotubes might help take down the cost barriers for applications like batteries in electric engines or expanding the capacity of lithium-ion batteries.

Roll up these nanotubes, add a few lumps and bumps to create imperfections in them, and suddenly you have a nano-catalyst that costs significantly less than platinum and performs nearly as well.

Moving up the nano size scale, to 20 nanometers, we find the particles in Georgia Tech’s nanopowder. Researchers there have come up with a develpment that could enhance national security (

The nanopowder they’ve come up with detects radiation – flagging nasties like gamma rays and subatomic particles emitted by nuclear material. Application? Bomb detection, and devices to find smuggled nuclear material and radiation emissions.

Lastly, we’ll let our nano meter get even larger. At 3mm, another of Standford’s developments might not technically qualify as nano, but I’m counting it because, well, it’s just too cool not to mention.

Remember the movie Fantastic Voyage? Raquel Welch was part of a team of scientists piloting a submarine through a human body?

Or maybe InnerSpace? Hot shot pilot Dennis Quaid gets shrunk down and ends up flying through the insides of Martin Short while chasing bad guys and Meg Ryan. OK, so maybe that’s not the greatest plot synopis, but the movie stuck with me because I loved the image of zooming along inside a blood vessel and fixing things from the inside out.

Researchers at Stanford have developed a new implant that propels itself though the bloodstream without batteries or wires — and can fit through blood vessels. Dennis Quaid or Raquel Welch not be piloting it, but the video:

still makes you say “wow.”

That’s why I’m so fascinated with scale. Working at both the itty-bitty and gigantium seems, well fantastical. It takes your perception of the possible and shakes it around, helping you imagine and envision new layers of what might be.

It even puts the daily “that’s impossible” into perspective – heck, if someone can put a transistor on an atom, why am I making such a big deal about parallel parking? Or about updating a web page?

Scale lets us imagine flying to other galaxies … or journing to the center of the atom. And if we can imagine it, someone day we just might do it.

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