COVER STORY :
Small Technology, Big Promise
By Samuel K. Moore

Photography by Bill Cramer

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Penn researchers are helping write the rulebook for the future of nanotechnology.
By Samuel K. Moore

Here’s a design task for the next decade: Start with a truck. Now, take away the driver and the fuel tank; then make it small enough to fit inside the slender branches of a human brain cell, smart enough to pick up the right sack of mood-regulating chemicals, and powerful enough to haul its cargo from one side of the brain to the other. Oh yes, and it has to assemble itself and operate perfectly in the equivalent of hurricane-force winds, too.

Machines like these, which would have to be comprised of one or just a few individual molecules, have been the decades-long dream of scientists and engineers working in the field of nanotechnology, and making them will push engineering to its limits.

Up until very recently even the most advanced microchips followed physical rules that remained largely true regardless of how big or small the device was. But in the realm of nanotechnology, where parts have dimensions measured in the millionths of a millimeter, everything is different. The color of a speck of gold is not gold but red or green depending on the speck’s exact size and shape; vibrations act like particles; motion is not smooth but full of seemingly random jiggles. In short, the rules change, and we don’t know most of them.

The good news is that life figured these rules out a long time ago. The proof that nature solved the aforementioned miniature truck problem, for example, is the billions of molecular motors crawling around in every cell of your body right now. The hope is that if we can learn the rules by which natural electrical, optical, and mechanical molecular devices work, we will not only get a better grasp of physiology but one day design our own molecular devices.

At Penn, that effort was given a major boost last fall when the University was named one of the six new Nanoscience and Engineering Centers (NSECs) to be funded by the National Science Foundation. Penn received a five-year grant of $11.4 million, renewable to $23 million, to study the interface of nanotechnology and biology at the molecular level. In November, the Nano/Bio Interface Center (NBIC) was set up to provide a home for a diverse group of Penn scientists and engineers working on various aspects of this effort. With other existing grants, about $30 million in funding will support Penn’s nanotechnology research efforts.

The six NSECs funded in this round of grants join eight others established since 2001. Each center has a different mission that complements its home institution’s strengths. Penn’s research on the interface of nanotechnology and biology at the molecular level could lead to advancements in nanoscale device manufacturing, drug delivery, and integrated chemical sensors, as well as an increased understanding of basic complex biological and physiological processes.

“Penn has tremendous strengths in biomedical research and also the physical sciences,” says NBIC Director Dawn Bonnell, a professor of materials science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “In fact, of all the NSECs funded so far, none of them are able to bridge this gap between the physical sciences and biology. So [NSF is] very excited about this one in particular.” Scientists and engineers from 10 departments across the University, including arts and sciences, the medical school, and five of the six engineering disciplines, will take part.

While some other NSECs are geared toward commercially oriented science in particular fields such as silicon microchips or magnetic storage media, Penn’s mission is both more broad and more purely scientific. “We’re asking the fundamental questions,” says Bonnell. “We see ourselves, in a very broad sense, as enabling nanotechnology.”

An important part of enabling nanotechnology will be helping society determine rules governing its use. Penn’s cadre of noted bioethicists, including Dr. Arthur Caplan, the Hart Professor of Bioethics and chair of medical ethics and director of the Center for Bioethics, and Dr. Paul Root Wolpe C’78, professor of psychiatry and senior faculty associate at the Center for Bioethics, will help shape the discussion of the ethical impact of nanotechnology.

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/05/05

Clockwise from top right: Nano/Bio Interface Center team members Alan Johnson, Dawn Bonnell (Director), Haim Bau, and Yale Goldman.