BACKGROUND: The engineering faculty, staff and students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are working with some of the nation's top science museums to create hands-on exhibits about nanotechnology. The effort is part of the $20 million Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network, which aims to develop innovative materials and vehicles to increase the public's knowledge and understanding of nanotechnology through exhibits.
ABOUT NANOTECHNOLOGY: Nanotechnology is science at the size of individual atoms and molecules: objects and devices measuring mere billionths of a meter, smaller than a red blood cell. At that size scale, materials have different chemical and physical properties than those of the same materials in bulk, because quantum mechanics is more important. For example, carbon atoms can conduct electricity and are stronger than steel when woven into hollow microscopic threads. Nanoparticles are already widely used in certain commercial consumer products, such as suntan lotions, "age-defying" make-up, and self-cleaning windows that shed dirt when it rains. One company manufactures a nanocrystal wound dressing with built-in antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. On the horizon is toothpaste that coats, protects and repairs damaged enamel, as well as self-cleaning shoes that never need polishing. Nanoparticles are also used as additives in building materials to strengthen the walls of any given structure, and to create tough, durable, yet lightweight fabrics.
SIZING THINGS UP: The tiny size scale makes it a challenge to translate nanotech research into something museum visitors can see, touch and comprehend, especially in an interactive format. UW-Madison already has the Nanoworld Discovery Center, which does just that. Among the exhibit's features is a segment about ferrofluids: tiny magnetic particles that flow like a liquid. They are used to damp vibrations and eliminate excess energy in expensive stereo systems. Visitors also learn about such applications as stain-resistant clothing, as well as compare incandescent bulbs to light-emitting diodes to learn how nanomaterials can help conserve energy.