Penn State

History & Future

Past, Present, and Future of Nanoscience at Penn State

The Past

Although nanotechnology is the youngest of all the sciences, some of the seeds of its birth were sown more than 150 years ago here in central Pennsylvania. In 1855 James Irvin, an agriculturist and iron master, along with his business partner, Moses Thompson, made a gift for the establishment of an institute of higher learning dedicated to the application of scientific principles to farming. Through the decades that followed, that institute would evolve into The Pennsylvania State University.

Perhaps prophetically, Irvin and Moses drew their livelihoods from the very same scientific phenomena from which nanotechnology has evolved today: the materials and life sciences, as embodied in the fields of botany and metallurgy.

Another early pioneer in what would someday become the study of nanotechnology was the University's first president, Evan Pugh, who in 1857 proved that plants derive their nitrogen from the soil, rather than from atmosphere, as was generally presumed.

Continuing in Professor Pugh's tradition, a century after the University's founding a Penn State scientist, Erwin Mueller, became the first person to "see" an atom with the aid of his invention, the field ion microscope, making him a pioneer in the early days of what would one day become nanoscale science and technology. Four years later, in 1959, Caltech physicist Richard Feynman would provide the outline for the new field in a talk presented at the American Physical Society.

The Present

The first wave of nano-driven change has been incremental rather than fundamental. Nanotechnology has been used to improve existing technologies, i.e., longer lasting tennis balls and lighter, stronger racquets, self-cleaning windows, odorless socks, and antimicrobial paints and dressings for wounds. Nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and nanofibers are added to existing products to strengthen them - auto bumpers, golf clubs, and bicycles. In 2006, some 200 products lay claim to some nanotechnology connection. Penn State researchers have contributed more than 100 patent-protected technologies, and have licensed 53 nanotechnology discoveries to industry.

The Future

Just over the horizon the next wave of changes approaching are liable to involve health and computation. The nanoscale has been called "nature's building block," the size scale of proteins, DNA, and RNA. The beautiful structures that nature has built atom by atom over billions of years are currently far beyond our reach. But at Penn State's Center for Nanoscale Science, researchers have developed arrays of microtubules that mimic some of the structures that are used within the cell to carry intracellular material. Other Penn State researchers are developing lab-on-a-chip technology for early detection of disease; ultrasonic glucose monitoring for diabetes control, nanomaterials for genetic susceptibility to illnesses; and molecular neurosensors that will measure the reaction to drugs in the brain. Some of these discoveries will be finding their way into clinical practice in the not-too-distant future.

In the tradition established by Irvin and Moses, Pugh and Mueller, Penn State continues to leverage its educational and scientific strengths through nanotechnology. Today, due to the diverse disciplines housed in various departments and colleges across campus, nanotechnology research facilities are scattered widely across University Park. In 2008, to focus research in a single, easily accessible location, the University will begin construction of a facility designed to create a new cross-pollenization of ideas between materials and life sciences, a $120 million Materials Research/ Life Sciences building complex in the central campus, with cutting- edge equipment, world-class shared laboratory facilities, and space for faculty to meet and exchange ideas.

This new, nano-optimized facility will provide an atmosphere where faculty, researchers, and clinicians can explore nature's smallest creations, and utilize their discoveries for the benefit of mankind.

To learn more about the Penn State's achievements in nanotechnology, please view the representative timeline.