BOZEMAN - At “Nano-Land” in the SUB Ballroom at Montana State University, volunteer Tianbo Liu asked a group of fifth-graders to gesture the size of a meter. “Now imagine a millionth of that,” he said. “That’s a micrometer. Now imagine you’re 50 micrometers tall.”
At that scale, a nylon tube that the students could crawl through represented a strand of silk, explained Liu, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering.
A dog bed cushion represented a red blood cell, and a thin strand of metal wire stood for a strand of DNA, which is actually less than three-billionths of a meter – or three nanometers – in diameter.
Roughly 120 fifth-graders from Whittier and Irving elementary schools in Bozeman gathered at MSU on Tuesday as part of the 10th annual NanoDays / MicroDays event, which MSU hosted as part of a nationwide celebration of nano-scale science.
Next to the Nano-Land activity, Carol Baumbauer of Bozeman helped students zip themselves into hooded, white “clean suits” like the one she wears while working in the Montana Microfabrication Facility at MSU.
“We wear these so we can make super-tiny stuff,” said Baumbauer, a senior majoring in electrical engineering at MSU. “If a piece of dust fell from our bodies onto what we’re making, it would be like a boulder falling on a house,” she added.
In the Microfabrication Facility, Baumbauer etches nano-scale grooves onto penny-sized chips of silicon as part of a research project with Wataru Nakagawa, associate professor in MSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Then, Baumbauer and another electrical engineering major, senior Ben Moon of Kalispell, shine focused beams of infrared light onto the chips, analyzing how the light responds.
According to Nakagawa, the nanomaterial could one day be used by special cameras to quickly analyze the infrared light reflected by clouds. The research team, which includes Joe Shaw, professor in MSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, hopes to use the technology to determine whether clouds are made of water droplets or ice crystals, an important distinction for predicting weather and modeling climate.
“I’ve realized how broad a field nanotechnology is, and how many applications there are,” said Moon, who was signed up to volunteer during the event’s evening session, which was open to all kids and their parents.
Nanotechnology blends engineering, chemistry, physics, and other areas of science, and has been identified by the National Science Foundation as a research priority. MSU researchers are using nanoscience to develop targeted vaccines, magnetic materials for electronics and catalysts for producing hydrogen, among other things.
Anja Kunze, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, showed a group of fifth-graders how polarized light filters work. The filters, she explained, contain parallel, nano-scale strands of wire that admit only light of certain wavelengths and orientation.
“We use this in sunglasses to block UV light,” like sunscreen does on skin, she said. “That’s cool,” said one of the fifth-graders.
In her lab, Kunze explores the potential for nanotechnology to heal the brain. Proper brain function relies on connections between tiny brain cells that can become damaged or broken. By inserting magnetic nanoparticles into brain cells cultured in the lab, then applying a localized magnetic field that causes the cells to stretch, Kunze has demonstrated that the cells can be stimulated to communicate.
“If you want to heal the cell from the inside, you need to actually go inside the cell,” said Kunze. “That’s where the nanotechnology comes in.” The technology could one day be used to treat traumatic brain injury or degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, she added.
Other activities explained the iridescence of butterfly wings, the absorption of diapers and the water-shedding ability of rain jackets.
Over the past decade, NanoDays has grown from a fairly small event to one that fills MSU’s SUB Ballrooms, drawing hundreds of visitors, said Suzi Taylor, assistant director for outreach and communications at MSU's Extended University.
A few years ago, she helped broaden the scope of the event to include all small-scale science (hence “MicroDays”) as a way of including MSU researchers working on Yellowstone microbiology, among other things.
According to Taylor, students and faculty volunteers from every college at MSU were leading activities at the event. “We’re excited to include so many student clubs and research centers,” including MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute and Extreme Gravity Institute, she said.
NanoDays / MicroDays is hosted by MSU’s Extended University as an outreach program of the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) in Montana, in cooperation with the Montana Nanotechnology Facility at MSU.
Suzi Taylor, Extended University, (406) 994-7957 or firstname.lastname@example.org.