NIU at Forefront of Nanotechnology

Renowned inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts that within the next five years nano-engineered materials currently being developed will make solar power competitive with fossil fuels. NIU is at the forefront of that research, 23 news reporter Adam Behrman takes us there to find out what a nano-particle is.

What is this? A radioactive snowflake? Something out of Star Trek? No! It's a nano-particle and it has the potential to change our world. Physicists at Northern Illinois University are part of a worldwide nanotechnology push.

"'What can we do with nano-particle? Can we assemble nano-particle and give them new properties? Can we use nano-particle to deliver drugs?,'" said Michel van Veenendaal, deputy director of the NIU Institute for Nanoscience.

NIU is a leader in the field of nanotechnology due to it's partnership with Argonne National Laboratories in Dupage County. At the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory's clean room workers must put on clean suits not to protect themselves from the nanomaterials, but to protect the nanomaterials from themselves.

A nano-particle is so small that if a human hair were to fall on one, it would be like a tree falling on an ant. So how can something so incredibly tiny possibly be used to fight disease or produce solar energy?

"You can take advantage of putting together inorganic materials and biological materials to make something that can be used for targeting cancer tumors, and it can be done non-invasively." said Derrick Mancini, Argonne associate division director for facilities & technology.

Imagine a world without chemotherapy where doctors send nano-particles into the body which actively seek out tumor cells and destroy them while leaving healthy cells alone. Nano materials could hold the solution to our energy crisis as well.

"A good example of where we could have a huge impact is if we were to make solar energy usage much more efficient and much less costly, and one of the ways we're looking to do that is with nano-scale materials," said Stephen Streiffer, Argonne associate division director for facilities & technology.

Solar cells made of silicon like these on the roof of Guilford high school cost over ten thousand dollars. But these research machines at Argonne and NIU could find ways to make solar cells out of plastic that could cost as little as house paint thus making them viable competitors to fossil fuels. So thanks to research being done in our own backyard some of the world's most pressing problems could be solved by particles smaller than we can imagine.

Sunlight falling on the earth offers ten thousand times the amount of energy that humankind consumes every year. If nanotechnology enables us to harness just one percent of that energy experts predict it could truly change the world.

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