Nanotechnology - 'All about doing more with less'

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer October 10, 2012 01:40 pm

David Johnson, a chemistry professor and nanotechnology expert with the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry, displays a mobile communications device that has more information stored on it than some computers on college campuses in the 1980s. With Johnson is Andy Bedingfield, the centerís director of outreach and education. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH - The Observer
David Johnson, a chemistry professor and nanotechnology expert with the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry, displays a mobile communications device that has more information stored on it than some computers on college campuses in the 1980s. With Johnson is Andy Bedingfield, the centerís director of outreach and education. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH - The Observer

Professor visits region in effort to help Ore. companies create better products for digital marketplace  

Struggling to explain the science of nanotechnology for a completely science-ignorant newspaper reporter last week, David Johnson held up a mobile communications device that fit neatly in the palm of his hand.

“There’s more information stored on this than there was in the huge computers you found on college campuses in the 1980s,” Johnson said. “Nanotechnology is all about doing more with less.”

Then he gave another example.

“Think about what TVs were like 30 or 40 years ago. It used to take three people just to lift one,” he said.

Johnson, a lead chemistry professor at the Corvallis-based Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry, spent last week on the road, staging a series of “Science Pubs” in Eastern Oregon communities including La Grande. 

He was spreading the word about the center’s research and its efforts to help Oregon companies — especially start-up companies — make better products for today’s digital marketplace. 

Electronic circuits are built on a nano-scale, so those products are smaller and lighter than anything people might have imagined decades ago. That’s good for businesses, and good for consumers. 

But according to Johnson, it’s only one part of nanotechnology’s benefit. 

The science has applications in energy, agriculture and many other fields. Solar panels, for instance, are smaller, lighter — and cheaper — these days than ever before.

“Now it costs less to buy the panels than it does to hire the guy to put them in,” Johnson said.

He said the big payoff for the world in general is in resource conservation.

 “The easily found stuff is being used up, so with all the shortages, how are we going to do more with less?” Johnson said. Examples of those dwindling resources, he said, are phosphorus for fertilizers and lithium for batteries. 

A basic tenet of nanotechnology is that the properties of a material change as size is manipulated. Take zinc oxide in sunscreen, for example. Johnson reminded the reporter that people don’t walk around with heavy coatings of greasy white stuff on their noses the way they used to.

“If you make zinc oxide small enough it becomes clear but it still blocks out the harmful light,” Johnson said.

Though nanotechnology has evolved into a complex modern-day technology, it’s actually been around a long, long time. Stained glass artists of old, for instance, discovered that gold will turn a red color when properly condensed and mixed, and silver will turn yellow.

“They were using nanotechnology and didn’t even know it,” Johnson said. “Actually, nanotechnology is a strategy you even see in nature. The color on a butterfly’s wings is made up of nano-particles.”

By now, science has devised powerful instruments that allow visualization and manipulation of materials at a near-atomic level. That kind of technology has made possible things like flat-panel television screens made up of billions of transistors.

Johnson said that at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, chemist Colby Heideman and students are helping the center develop a nano-thin film made from a water-based solution. 

“It has potential applications for all kinds of flat panel devices,” Johnson said.

Eastern is one of many partners in the public and private sectors helping the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry move forward in the field. Those partners include the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, IBM, Intel, Hewlett Packard. Others on board are Inpria, SupraSensor Technologies and Amorphyx,  three Oregon businesses that got their start at the center. 

Inpria is involved in the use of films like the one Heideman is researching at Eastern. SupraSensor, headed by an entrepreneur from Hermiston named Fred Ziari, is pioneering chemical senors for precision agriculture. Amorphyx is another company seeking to revolutionize flat panel technology.

Johnson said partnerships with those entities and others, plus faculty, staff and students working together, account for significant advances in the field. 

He said he is pleased to work with the likes of Center Director and chemistry professor Doug Keszler, executive council member and chemistry professor Darren Johnson, and others well-known and well-respected in the field.

“I think the public’s perception of science is that you go off into a room by yourself to think, but it’s a people process,” he said.