Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 11/24/2014 2:08:35 PM CST

Top Stories

Melissa Suran/MEDILL 

Different sizes of silver nanoprisms creating a spectrum of colors.

Northwestern goes nano big time

by Melissa Suran
Jan 14, 2009

Courtesy of the International Institute for Nanotechnology. 

Nano art of university benefactors Ann Lurie and Steven Rosen.  The picture was created by graduate student Andrew Senesi using a process called dip-pen nanolithography.  The actual size of the image is smaller than a blood cell.

It may be silver, but if broken down into little pieces, it becomes a spectrum of colors. On Saturday, it could be your turn to be an alchemist, turning silver into rainbows, by visiting the colorful world of nanotechnology.

Through a program called Science Chicago, a yearlong celebration of the sciences in the Windy City, Northwestern is inviting the public to its nanotechnology laboratory. For $7, anyone can attend the event, called Science of Small, for a day of demonstrations and presentations.

Known for dominating the nanotechnology world, Northwestern earned recognition for being a major center in the field along with the name Nano U.

Chad Mirkin, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern and the director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at the university, said it’s very important that people understand the significance of nanotechnology.

“Nanotechnology is important to the public because it’s going to change almost everything we do and everything we use,” Mirkin said.

Nanotechnology, or nanotech, as many scientists nickname it, is a science that focuses on creating structures on a microscopic level and studying their properties. Nanotech scientists break down molecular and atomic structures into nanometers.

According to Northwestern’s website, the width of a very fine human hair, which is the smallest dimension viewable by the naked eye, is equal to approximately 10,000 nanometers, one nanometer equaling one billionth of a meter.

Mirkin said that after a component is broken down, scientists reassemble the particles to make structures that are more functional.

“The beauty of that is you no longer have to take what nature gives you,” he said. “You can build materials that have the perfect properties for a given application.”

As a result, scientists can create materials that are harder, more flexible or have multiple functions. Today, many manufacturers sell products created through nanotechnology, including clear suntan lotion, stronger tennis rackets and miniaturized electronics.

“Smaller is not only a way of making smaller devices and functional devices; it’s a way of making new things,” Mirkin said.

Nanotechnology can also help fight against diseases. Scientists are finding new ways to make therapeutics that are less harmful to cancer patients.

“[Traditional] cancer therapy is effectively poison therapy,” Mirkin said. “You try to take the patient very, very close to death in hopes that you can kill all the cancer cells, along the way you’re killing a lot of healthy cells.”

Mirkin said the reason there are so many terrible side effects is because the delivery and targeting of the cells is not perfected yet. Through nanotechnology, scientists are creating new tiny devices that can go inside the body and target only cancer cells while delivering electrical shocks that kill the cancerous cells, but not healthy ones.

Scientists can also use nanotechnology find out if people have genetic markers for diseases, such as blood clotting and metabolism problems.

“If you have a problem with thrombosis [a blood clotting disorder], there are three genetic markers that you need to look for and these tests allow you to quickly identify those,” he said.

According to Mirkin, people need to know if they have various disorders before taking certain medications. If someone is undergoing surgery, complications can arise if the patient has a blood clotting disease and takes a blood thinner. Mirkin says one in three people have a genetic inability to metabolize certain blood thinners, such as the widely used drug warfarin, sold under the name Coumadin.

Although the experiments at Science of Small won’t involve searching for miracle cures, Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology outreach coordinator, Denise Dooley, said attendees will be engaged in a range of activities, including making stained glass using dyes created through nanotechnology.

Mirkin said both gold and silver can be broken down to the point where they no longer stay their original shades. Silver can even change into any color in the spectrum.

“You take gold and miniaturize it to a 20 nanometer particle, it’s no longer gold in color, it’s blood red in color,” Mirkin said.” They were used in the Middle Ages as the red dyes in stained glass windows…unlike the dyes in our clothing which, in the sunlight for a long period of time will fade, gold doesn’t fade in color.”

There will also be microscope demonstrations featuring some of the most advanced technology, such as the scanning electron microscope, which, unlike a traditional light microscope, can magnify images up to 2 million times.

Science of Small will be held at Northwestern’s Technological Institute located at 2145 Sheridan Road in Evanston. Tickets are available for purchase until Thursday night for either the 9:00 a.m.-11:30 a.m. session or the 12:30 p.m.-3:00 p.m. session on Saturday.

To purchase event tickets or to find more information on Science of Small or Science Chicago, visit