Developments to Watch
THE FOUR-WAY RACE TO CHURN OUT ULTRAFINE PARTICLES
As scientists try to fashion a revolutionary new generation of materials for everything from high-tech ceramics to new semiconductors, they are increasingly relying on ultrafine particles that contain only a few thousand atoms apiece. By putting together billions of these tiny particles, researchers can design materials to be far stronger or more versatile than anything now produced. But because the particles are so hard to make, the materials remain mostly a laboratory curiosity.
That's why the National Science Foundation is trying to find innovative methods of generating large quantities of ultrafine particles. Earlier this year, the agency asked scientists for clever new ideas; now, it's granting $200,000 a year for three years to each of four winning university teams. One group plans to form ultrafine materials in a plasma (an ionized gas) and use a nozzle to control the particle size. Others will create sparks to break larger crystals into smaller ones or use tightly controlled burning to create tiny particles in the smoke. The fourth group will generate particles in a liquid solution. "Our intention is to develop the technology base for industry to use in 5 to 10 years," says NSF program manager Mihail C. Roco.EDITED BY WILLIAM D. MARBACH