Sunday, September 9, 2012

What is ‘Power of Minus 9’?

Power of Minus 9 is a nanotechnology blog which explains the beautiful, mysterious and inspiring world of life in the nano-scale and beyond. This blog intends to explain current nano-related topics to the curious, anxious, attentive future nerds and all others. I want to show you how awesome science can be. 

So, what exactly is the name ‘Power of Minus 9’ referring to? It is an allusion to the scale of a nanometer (nm), which is a billionth of a meter and in scientific terms written as 1*10-9 m, which is 0.000000001 m, a loooot of zeros. This scale is really small, e.g. an atom has a size of 0.1 nm, only a tenth of a nanometer. Amazing, isn’t it? To show you how small a nanometer is, imagine a hair, which is roughly 0.1 mm thick, now cut it into 100’000 pieces then you end up with hair pieces that have a thickness of 1 nm. It’s like looking at stars, but the other way around. Instead of looking extremely far away, you’re looking to the other side of the scale, extremely zoomed in. 

What is all the hype about nano then, except that it’s incredibly small and hard to see, feel or imagine? Well, if you are dealing at this scale, you are trying to understand what single molecules, atoms and cells are doing. Quantum effects play an important role as well, particles do not behave like we used to know anymore. They start to exist at two different places at the same time, a lot of weird stuff is going on down there. Useful applications result out of nanoscience as well, like designing new electronic memories built out of single atoms to enhance performance and decrease size. A more futuristic idea is to fabricate a nano-sized small robot which navigates through your blood system and repairs the human body from the inside.

Principle of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM). The cantilever
scans over the surface. Due to forces between the atoms
the cantilever will bend and a topography map is created.
What’s different about this scale is how to ‘see’ what you’re dealing with. With a microscope you can’t visualize single atoms; the resolution is by far not high enough. However, there exist several techniques, which allow you to see what atoms look like and are what they are doing. One of them is Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM). It’s a very powerful tool and actually a quite simple technique. You take a cantilever made of silicon, which looks like a long arm attached to a base. At the far end of the cantilever is a tip shaped like a pyramid. Ideally, this tip is very sharp with only one single atom at the end. The tip scans over the surface and senses individual atoms underneath. If there is a valley or a hill, the cantilever will bend towards or away from it. With a laser, which emits light onto the cantilever, the movement can be detected and a topographic map is created (see image). The AFM was invented in the 80s and opened the door to the nanoworld, as this was the first tool to imagine non-conducting surfaces at the nanoscale.

This blog will explain and discuss the latest development in the broader field of nanotechnology, trying to answer questions like, what does a quantum computer do? How does your cell phone camera works? What is a brain chip? What’s up with nanofluidics? and many more. Getting curious? All of these questions will be clarified in a simple but challenging way, so that everyone can have a piece of the awesome nano-cake. If you’re interested in a topic, leave me a comment and I will try my best to cover this in one of my next posts.