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Students think big with tiny technologies

July 23, 2007

The ability to observe and manipulate matter on the scale of atoms and molecules, known as nanoscale science and engineering (NSE), has become the “Holy Grail” of the global science community.

According to the National Science Foundation, the global nanotechnology industry will grow to $1 trillion by 2015. Nano enthusiasts say that such investment could hold the key to solving a range of human problems, from managing disease and cleaning up pollution to generating energy.

During the 2006-2007 academic year, three student teams in ASU’s InnovationSpace program took on the nano challenge. InnovationSpace is a transdisciplinary education and research lab that teaches students how to develop products that create market value while serving real societal needs and minimizing impacts on the environment. The teams were sponsored by the university’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS), and their assignments were to create product ideas that would enhance the freedom, privacy and security of individuals and communities.

The task was daunting. Many technologies, for example, are still on the drawing board, and products that have made it to market often are less than inspirational. To date, nano-based materials have found their way into nearly 500 consumer products. Those that capitalize on NSE’s potential for revolutionary and positive social benefits are the exception rather than the rule. The list includes stain-resistant Brooks Brothers ties and Eddie Bauer khaki pants, face creams, skis, more durable tennis balls, transparent sunscreen lotions and kitchen paint.

“It’s a discouraging list for nanotechnology purists,” wrote Barnaby J. Feder in 2006 in the New York Times, adding that “the items have little to do with the society-changing breakthroughs nanotechnology champions anticipate.”

“If we are to realize the extraordinary promise of nanotechnology, then the people on the front lines of nanotechnology – notably, engineers, designers and business entrepreneurs – must have a firm grounding in its potential to resolve important societal and environmental problems,” says CNS director David Guston. “InnovationSpace, with its cross-disciplinary teams of students and goal of socially responsible design, is inherently well-suited to training the NSE innovators of tomorrow.”

The groups, supported by CNS, developed a range of innovative solutions to real-life problems.

One of the groups, Speck, created an ingenious new system for using human energy to generate electrical power. Its project called for installing nano-enabled piezoelectric floor tiles in such highly trafficked public places as airports and shopping malls, where they could absorb stress from the weight of passers-by and convert it to electricity. The energy is then stored in kiosks that double as a recharge ports for electronic devices, such as cell phones, .mp3 players and computers, as well as an interactive educational display for energy conservation.

Another group, Nanopants, created a personal diagnostic device for people who require frequent health monitoring. Users, for example, can drop a nanosensor the size of a fingernail into a toilet, where it analyzes the content of human waste such as urine. The data are relayed via a wireless connection to a display unit. The device also can be networked with other electronic outputs, including computers and cell phones, to alert remote caretakers, such as the children of aging parents, to potential problems.

The third team, Think Small, added a bioengineering component to its final project. The group devised a scheme in which living trees are injected with a genetically modified yeast strain that causes the leaves to produce ethanol. A nano-based device filters the ethanol from the sap of the manipulated trees, what the students called “electricitrees.” Think Small estimated that nearly four gallons of ethanol could be produced each day using this method.

A new trio of InnovationSpace teams will have another crack at pitting their imaginations against nano’s challenge in the 2007-2008 academic year. InnovationSpace was awarded a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance to support students in developing visions for new futures in human health and enhancement.

Adelheid Fischer,
(480) 965-6367