CONNECTIONS TO OTHER FIELDS; EDUCATION ISSUES

GARY POEHLEIN
DIRECTORATE FOR ENGINEERING, NSF

Other Fields

The use of the prefix "nano" on many terms has expanded rapidly in the past several years. One of the drivers for this has been new technical capabilities and knowledge in dealing with materials in the size range between single molecules and a micron and, of course, the enormous commercial potential for new products, especially in the electronics and biotechnology marketplaces. Man-made nanoparticles for a few applications, however, have been produced commercially for many years. Hence, one factor that needs to be considered as work in this area expands rapidly is, how much can be learned from previous research and development in some of the more mature nanofields?

The area of emulsion polymerization and latex technology is one example of a more mature technology. Polymer nanoparticles have been commercially produced for more that 50 years. In the current state of the art it is possible to produce particles in the size range of about 20 nm (maybe slightly smaller in special cases) to more than one micron. The sizes and size distributions can generally be controlled with reasonable precision. It is possible to produce monodisperse latexes good enough to serve as calibration standards, bi- and tri-modal distributions, as well as rather broad continuous distributions. The particles in these systems can have the same or different (and controlled) chemical compositions, morphologies, surface characteristics, and shapes. Major advances in theory, manufacturing methods, and prediction of application performance have strengthened the fundamental knowledge base and thereby accelerated development is this important area.

Connecting workers in the "new nanotechnologies" to those in some of these more mature fields may be of significant benefit to all participants. Some knowledge and well established practices may be transferable, and new insights may flow in both directions.

Education

The development, manufacture, and intelligent utilization of the numerous new products that will flow from the nanotechnology age will require highly skilled human resources. The extensive research activities in industry, national laboratories, and especially universities will play a major role in addressing the need for people with in-depth knowledge who are capable of making contributions at the cutting-edge. Sources of persons who are able to efficiently modify products and processes, manufacture devices, and intelligently utilize nanoproducts could be a more serious problem. Current college courses deal almost exclusively with molecules and macroscale phenomena with nothing in between. Most universities, even some highly recognized research institutions, do not even have a basic course in fundamental surface and colloid science. The question is rather straightforward: How will we prepare science and engineering graduates, at all degree levels, to function effectively with the new and future technologies at the nanoscale? What should be done with basic courses, advanced electives, and equally important, continuing education for persons who enter these new fields? The costs of not dealing with these important issues could be very significant.

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Published: January 1998; WTEC Hyper-Librarian