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Research Communications

NSF Grant Funds Ohio University Nanotechnology Research, Outreach Programs 

November 19, 2003

ATHENS, Ohio – Imagine having a tiny magnetic chip inside your favorite sweater. The temperature drops, the magnet responds and – like magic – your body’s heat kicks up a few degrees. Just a fantasy? Think again. Four Ohio University physicists are working to develop the tiny magnet that could make this phenomenon possible.

A new $1.1 million Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT) grant could bring this concept closer to reality. The four-year grant is funded by the National Science Foundation and will support research and a public outreach program in nanotechnology, a growing field that explores activity at the molecular and submolecular level. Arthur Smith, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, is leading the group’s efforts.

In the past three years, the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences has received two NIRT grants – an impressive feat for an institution of Ohio University’s size, Smith said. Only one other university in the state, Ohio State University, also received two NIRT grants from the NSF. This year, 58 universities across the country received funding from the program, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.

The grant will support research into ultra-small magnetism, an atomic property that results from shifts in direction in an electron’s charge. Current magnets used in electronics radiate large amounts of heat because of their bulky size. A computer hard drive, for example, uses a fan to reduce the heat of its internal magnet.

The tiny magnet that Smith and his team are developing ideally would produce less heat and, as a result, could revolutionize electronics. The researchers use the needle-like probe of a scanning tunneling microscope to reposition atoms in materials such as iron, chromium or cobalt to generate a magnet barely visible to the naked eye.

The grant also will fund research into nanospintronics, a new area of nanoscience that could help engineers build faster, more powerful computers and electronic devices in the future. Spintronics seeks to use a property of the electron called its “spin” by isolating it from the electron’s charge, said Nancy Sandler, a research assistant professor who is involved in the project with Smith and physicists Sergio Ulloa and Saw-Wai Hla. Smith recently developed a unique method of identifying the direction of an electron’s spin, and the department now is one of only a few research institutes around the world capable of measuring this property.

The grant will fund an outreach program for area schools as well. The team will present their current research, lead experiments and show videos to explain the field of nanotechnology to high school students.

The project also supports a science-writing position, which will be filled each year of the grant by an Ohio University journalism or science student. The writer will report on the department’s research projects and on the outreach program. Articles will be distributed to local and statewide media outlets and will be available to the general public through the project’s Web site.

In 2001, the Department of Physics and Astronomy received its first NIRT grant, which provided $1.1 million for molecular electronic research by physicists Victoria Soghomonian, Jean Heremans and Sergio Ulloa, and Bruce McCord of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. The grant funded the creation of a new interdisciplinary institute, the Nanoscale and Quantum Phenomena Institute.

The grant supported research in nanoelectronics, which blends nanoscience and electronics. The team is exploring how to reduce the size of electronic devices by developing a crystal-like material in the lab that could house an enormous number of nearly identical single-electron transistors. This eventually could lead to the creation of a quantum computer, a theoretical tiny device that could speed database searches or safeguard sensitive data. The first NIRT team also has been exploring the electrical properties of DNA molecules. The project has involved students at Ohio University and other colleges in the lab and in the classroom through the creation of new courses in nanoscience.

By Brittany Yingling

Contact: Arthur Smith, (740) 597-2576, smitha2@ohio.edu.