Before you can understand nanoscience, Branden Brough was saying, you need to understand the derivation of the word. Nano is short for nanometer, a metric measure of length.
"You know what a millimeter is, right?" he said. "It's about as close as you can get your finger and thumb without touching. If you divide that space by a million, that's a nanometer."
Brough is senior communications and outreach specialist for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Molecular Foundry, where good things come in unbelievably small packages. Research there has led to stunning advances in biomedicine, renewable energy, light modification and carbon capture, among other things.
It's not a particular discipline of science, like physics or chemistry, but the study of all science at the molecular level. As a knowledge-based users facility funded by the Department of Energy, it is available to researchers worldwide through a peer-reviewed proposal process. At root is the principle that if you make something smaller, its properties and applications can be changed.
To explain his point in terms even a journalist could understand, Brough pulled out a tiny vial filled with gold flakes. They are distinctive in color, brightly reflective and good electrical conductors, he said. Then he pulled out two other vials -- one filled with a clear red liquid, another a murky rose color.
"These are also gold," he said. "They're gold nanoparticles in solution -- these particles are 20 nanometers, the others are 80 nanometers. The first thing you notice is the difference in color. The other is they're no longer metallic in property. Instead of conducting electricity, they now behave more like semiconductors. "
Because I did science homework last and generally turned it in late, I can't claim to comprehend every aspect of what I witnessed in the six-story, glass-and-chrome Molecular Foundry -- so named because it's used to build things -- but the one constant is molecular manipulation. By slightly changing how a component is structured at the molecular level, it can be repurposed.
One such development is electrochromic glass -- "smart windows," if you will -- which, when embedded with a thin coating of nanocrystals, can permit visible sunlight into a room while deflecting its near-infrared heat, or block out visible light while allowing in the heat. All it takes is the flick of a switch and some low-voltage current.
Another intriguing discovery, particularly to the Department of Energy, is a Metal Organic Framework (MOF) designed to capture carbon dioxide. Brough described it as a high-tech sponge, made of metal joints connected by organic components, that could be fitted inside a smokestack.
"Most things will pass through it," he said, "but because you have these little chambers that capture and bind carbon dioxide, it will stay there."
A recent medical innovation is an artificial, self-assembling beta sheet, only two molecules thick, that could be customized to detect biomarkers characteristic of diabetes, cancer or any number of illnesses.
Nanotechnology has been used to make solar cells more efficient and less costly. It's been used to make microchips smaller. It's been used to observe how light energy converts into electric energy, which converts into chemical energy in photosynthesis.
For a science that's all about small things, it's making a big impact. Makes me wish I'd paid more attention in science class.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.