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Creating a big thing over almost

UGA’s new Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center brings scientists together

Physics professor Bill Dennis is director of the new Nanoscale ­Science and ­Engineering Center-or NanoSEC-at UGA. He talked with Columns about nanotechnology on campus. 

Columns: I understand UGA has its first nanotechnology course, PHYS 4200-6200, and I’d like to talk about that.

Dennis: I think it’s worth saying that this is the second time that we’ve offered it-the first time was sort of experimental. This time it actually exists as a class within the university system.

We also have some ideas for some other classes. One is a nanofabrication lab class, where the kids actually get hands-on experience using nano­fabrication techniques and looking at the structures that they’ve made.

We also hope to put together a multi-instructor type of course, where computational techniques are used to model nanosystems and deal with things on the atomic scale up to the macroscopic scale.

Columns: So this initial group of courses will anchor the introduction of nanotech on campus?

Dennis: These courses are going to form the centerpiece of what we hope will be a graduate nano­technology certificate program. The idea is to use that as a platform to compete for NSF initiatives.

Columns: Does the NanoSEC have members?

Dennis: Basically our membership is people who demonstrate they’re working in nanotechnology or working in something that is impacted by it. At the moment we have about 30 members, from eight departments across four colleges.

The idea is to have a common, central voice, so that we can try and get improved facilities that will benefit all of us.

I’d like to hope that NanoSEC is highlighting people’s research, a lot of which has been going on for many years but just didn’t have the mechanisms to make it as up-front as it is now.

Columns: Would you say that nanotechnology is a sub-discipline of physics?

Dennis: What defines nano­technology is the scale and-to be a little bit more specific-some of the functionality has to come out of that scale. It’s not enough to shrink something down to nano size if you just have a smaller object that’s functionally not different.

Nanoscience is not a discipline of physics-it truly is a cross-disciplinary field that’s in the process, at the moment, of still being defined. If you look at many of the collaborations that are going on, they exist among and between physics, biological engineering, chemistry, vet med, pharmacy, genetics-it’s amazing how important these cross-cutting collaborations are. That’s where the action is.

Columns: How is nanotech developing at other places?

Dennis: Nationally there are much bigger centers. We try and have collaborations with life sciences, which are strong on campus.

Nanotechnology is still new. The government is pumping a lot of money into it, though it’s not clear at this stage how great an impact nanotech will actually have on our lives. But it goes from the continual shrinking of micro­fabrication down into nano­fabrication, to all sorts of new applications-like new sports equipment or better, tougher fabric for clothes.

Columns: And how are universities preparing to take advantage of that government emphasis?

Dennis: The government is also putting emphasis on education-K-12-teaching our kids something about nanotechnology. And that’s something that NanoSEC has been involved in, in various ways. It’s important to let high schoolers know that it’s out there and that it will impact them.

In my limited experience it’s something these kids aren’t aware of, but if you look at some of the projections that nanotechnology will have on the global economy, many in school at the moment are probably going to have nano­technology-related careers.

Presentations to students and tours are also the type of outreach that is a good way of recruiting interested students to UGA.

Columns: It’s odd to be still trying to define something that is expected to affect the lives of millions of people. But it’s not particularly theoretical, like string theory. Is it just a matter of what we can do physically?

Dennis: The buzz word, I guess, is nanotechnology, although that involves nanoscience and nano­engineering. But it’s about devices and functionality-new improved devices, new improved materials. We all like “new and improved.”

Columns: And are we going to watch the laws of physics bend and twist as things get smaller?

Dennis: No. What we’re going to do, though, is find that different laws will become important. Do things behave the way our intuition tells us? Maybe not, because our intuition is built on what we experience macroscopically. So I don’t think we will challenge the laws of physics so much as just see new laws come into play, ones that we’re not so familiar with.