Volume 32, Number 3, 1999
Science of Tiny Features Faces Big Future
The cover story in this issue of the Review highlights some of the research and development (R&D) work being done by ORNL staff on the fascinating science that emerges when materials and structures are fabricated with defining dimensions in the "nanoscale" (1-100 x 10-9 meters) range. This R&D is called nanoscale science, engineering, and technology (NSET), which refers broadly to the rich new science that arises when materials and structures are made in the transition region between truly atomic systems and bulk materials.
In this nanoscale range, new properties and phenomena arise because sample sizes become comparable to many physical parameters that determine materials properties such as quantum wavelengths, mean free paths, coherence lengths, and domain dimensions. These dimensions also bridge the region where our classical and quantum models are used to describe behavior. Some of our R&D deals with materials actually fabricated with nanoscale dimensions, such as carbon nanotubes, quantum dots, and molecular electronic devices. But NSET can also refer to macroscopic systems formed from nanoscale components, such as ceramic materials made of nanoscale powders. Or it may encompass an electronic or mechanical system engineered from nanoscale-dimension devices. As you will see from the work presented in the Review cover story, NSET science can result in new electronic devices, new materials and materials properties, medical probes, and other applications limited only by the imagination.
ORNL is an ideal place for the seeds of NSET to grow because all the ingredients for success are here. What is needed for a successful NSET program are: (1) a strong core materials science and engineering program, (2) a variety of capabilities and expertise to synthesize new materials and process them into nanoscale configurations molecule by molecule, (3) world-class characterization facilities that can "see" new materials configurations at the atomic level and determine their properties, and (4) high-performance computer modeling and simulation capabilities to understand materials properties and predict new configurations. This list of needs perfectly matches ORNL's core competencies. That is why ORNL selected NSET as a major focus area to receive targeted internal funding from our Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program over the next three years.
Finally, the most compelling reason for emphasizing NSET at ORNL is that it promises to position us for new science and technology in the years to come. Recent reports by the National Research Council(1) and the DOE Office of Science(2)(3) predict that most of the new science and technological breakthroughs in the 21st century will come from complex materials and structures "engineered" at the atomic level. A close examination of these reports shows that what is required to fabricate and understand complex materials and structures is NSET. Thus, by emphasizing this important area now and building on our already strong programs, ORNL will not only be ready, but will be a leader of this new science in the future.