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Big Questions About a Tiny Science

Annual symposium brings top nanoscientists and engineers to Northwestern Oct. 9

EVANSTON, Ill. --- President Barack Obama knows about nanotechnology, its impact on the economy and its promise for the future. Last week, during his speech at Northwestern University on economic policy, the president gave a shoutout to the University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN).

“If we want to make and sell the best products, we have to invest in the best ideas, like you do here at Northwestern,” President Obama said to the audience gathered in Cahn Auditorium and to the nation. “Your nanotechnology institute doesn’t just conduct groundbreaking research; that research has spun off 20 startups and more than 1,800 products -- that means jobs.”

In the glow of that spotlight, some of the world’s top nanoscientists and engineers will gather this week in Evanston to discuss the latest advances, issues and applications of the technology, from solar cells to 3D printing of biological materials, at the 2014 IIN Symposium Thursday, Oct. 9.

The all-day public symposium, to be held in the Grand Ballroom of the Hilton Orrington Hotel, is free, but registration is required (

Chad A. Mirkin, IIN director and a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, recently explained some things about this powerful science and what the future might hold.

Q: What exactly is nanotechnology?

A: It’s the study of materials and processes that operate at the level of atoms and molecules. One nanometer is one billionth of a meter. To put that extremely small size in context: A nanometer is to a meter what a marble is to the Earth. Materials with nano-sized particles have always existed. But not until some relatively recent advances in scientific instrumentation, such as atomic force microscopes, were scientists able to both observe nanoparticles and manipulate them. Scientists and engineers around the world are beginning to fully comprehend the amazing properties of matter on the tiniest of scales, which is very exciting.

Q: Does the scale really matter?

A: Properties -- optical, structural, electrical, mechanical and chemical -- for nearly every material change when shrunk down to the nanoscale. The most obvious is color. A micropowder of one material, say, the metal gold, is one color (gold), while the same material as a nanopowder is another color (red). And the melting temperatures for gold in bulk form and gold on the nanoscale have a difference of hundreds of degrees. We want to understand more about this and the properties of all kinds of materials on the nanoscale and figure out how they might be useful.

Q: Where is nanotechnology today?

A: Nanotechnology is still in its infancy but is growing rapidly in influence. It is estimated that there were approximately 400,000 workers in the field of nanotechnology in 2008. Current trends suggest that the number of nanotechnology workers and products worldwide will double every three years, reaching a $3 trillion market with six million jobs by 2020.

Q: What might we be able to thank nanotechnology for in the future?

A: Nanotechnology is a revolutionary new branch of science and engineering that can be used to address many of the world’s most pressing problems. Chemists, engineers, biologists, physicians, business experts and many others are involved. Researchers are using nanotechnology to develop targeted therapeutics for cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disorders and other diseases; more efficient energy storage devices; and novel ways to safely remediate pollution. These are just a few of the significant areas in which Northwestern researchers are working. And a world of scientists and engineers are working on even more.

Q: What is the University’s role in the nanotechnology revolution?

A: Northwestern has been leading and shaping this extraordinary transformation for more than a decade. The University established the International Institute for Nanotechnology in 2000 as an umbrella organization that catalyzes and supports interdisciplinary research focused on the development of transformative nanotechnologies. The institute currently represents more than $600 million in nanotechnology research, educational programs and supporting infrastructure at Northwestern.

For more information on the International Institute for Nanotechnology and the 2014 symposium, go to