The Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Center for Nanophase Materials Science is a one-stop-shop for nanoresearch, where scientists investigate the composition of materials that are 100,000 times smaller than a human hair. During its inaugural users meeting June 14-16, 2006, the center’s scientific director Doug Lowndes welcomed more than 300 delegates representing universities and laboratories from around the globe to hear about the future of the Center and the research it will address over the next two years starting in late October or early November.
But the Center has opened one month ahead of schedule, and National Laboratory, the university and international nano-scientists are preparing to christen the new center with their investigations and experiments. National Laboratory scientists have organized their studies at the nanoscience center into six themes — macromolecular complex systems, functional nanomaterials, catalysis and nano-building blocks, magnetism and quantum transport, nanofabrication research and theory, modeling and simulation. These systems give potential users a general idea of the grand challenges that the Lab’s nanoscience center faces when trying to scientifically understand current nanotechnology opportunities and needs.
The first grand challenge that the nanoscience center hopes to overcome is “designing and controlling the nanoscale organization of macromolecular materials,” said Phil Britt, a National Laboratory scientist, about Macromolecular Complex Systems at a nano-conference in June. Focusing mainly on polymers, the group’s co-leader suggested that the new laboratory was a “one-stop-shop” for users’ polymer needs, including design, synthesis and characterization. Britt, alongside National Laboratory and UT-National Laboratory Distinguished Scientist Jimmy Mays, will lead the macromolecular systems group as they prepare to use the latest equipment and resources, such as the Spallation Neutron Source, to uncover the fundamental properties of polymers and the control scientists may have over their synthesis.
Functional Nanomaterials, a second theme of the nanocenter, faces four grand challenges. Dave Geohegan, who is an adjunct professor at UT in materials science and engineering, said that this group will first focus on controlling the creation of high quality nanorods, nanowires and quantum dots made from a wide range of materials. Scientists and engineers are studying these structures because of their strength at the atomic level; they are more structurally sound than micromaterials and have the potential for commercial use in waterproof, tear-resistant clothing, lightbulb filaments, solar cells and air pollution filters.
National Laboratory scientist Steve Overbury discussed the focus in Catalysis and Nano-Building Blocks, which is the newest theme this year. He said that the researchers will address the task of creating and characterizing reaction catalysts on the level of nanoparticles and nanocrystals. Because the nanoscience center enables scientists to use National Laboratory’s cutting-edge resources, such as specialized electron and scanning microscopes, and to collaborate with the Functional Nanomaterials to understand how nanomaterials are composed, the group anticipates major advances in this field. Overbury said the group will aim to influence energy resource research and development with applications of its studies in hydrogen storage and production, fuel cells, pollution control and other areas.
The challenge within the Nanoscale Magnetism and Transport theme lies in uncovering the origins of magnetism in nanomaterials, as well as how to measure the quantum transportation in ultra-thin film, nanowire and nanostrip surfaces. National Laboratory scientist Jian Shen, working beside Ward Plummer, a Laboratory and UT distinguished scientist, will oversee the magnetism and transport scientists as they access a suite of scanning probes and instruments designed to measure at the nanoscale how nanostructures grow in an devoid of particle pollution that would destroy the integrity of the nanoparticles.
“The scanning electron microscope is dynamic to understanding the magnetism of nanostructures,” Shen said. Understanding magnetic properties and interactions of nanodot structures that will be a key for developing higher data storage on smaller and smaller devices, he said.
The final theme focuses on Nanomaterial Theory, Modeling and Simulation. National Laboratory scientist Peter Cummings introduced potential National Laboratory guest scientists to the Nanomaterials Theory Institute, which is available to experimental users for support in the theory and computational components of their research. Cumming said the nanomaterials institute vision is one of integration with the experimental side of the center, providing a problem-solving base for the researchers. The theory institute will aid all the other themes in addressing their challenges, most importantly addressing how computer scientists can functionally design and virtually create nanomaterials.
The nanomaterials institute aims to become a world center for nanoscientist collaboration, and it intends to bring together world leaders and users of computational nanoscience, by sponsoring an international program of Computational Nanoscience Focused User Laboratories, or NanoFocULs. The theory institute aims to provide experimental scientists hands on access to develop and apply the newest techniques needed to address the Center’s seven related scientific themes.
“We want to simplify materials,” Cummings said. “Anything that works on a nanoscale connects to how it works on the macroscale.” The Center’s themes challenge theoretical and experimental scientists to identify that connection, and Cummings said answering the themes’ questions and creating new nanomaterials will rely entirely on collaboration.