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It’s a Small World After All

Narayanan Kuthirummal, physics professor

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In the basement of the Robert Scott Small Building, Narayanan Kuthirummal, an assistant professor of physics, goes to work in a world so small he must use an electron microscope to get there. In this world, objects are most easily measured in nanometers, units one billionth the size of a meter. In this world, Newtonian physics don’t really apply; this is the world of quantum mechanics, a branch of physics more suitable for describing things on the atomic and subatomic level.

As a scientist with broad interests in nanoscience and technology, Kuthirummal manipulates matter with dimensions between 1 and 100 nanometers. If it’s tough for you to visualize how small a nanometer is compared to a meter, imagine the difference between a football and the earth. Because nanomaterial is so small, especially compared to modern scientific tools and instruments, nanotechnology is often described as attempting to stack Lego blocks while wearing a pair of boxing gloves.

Despite its tiny scale, scientists predict nanotechnology will be one of the most important scientific fields in the coming decades, with applications in medicine, electronics, energy, manufacturing, robotics and more. The idea is that, by engineering exceptionally small molecular devices only a few atoms large, scientists can craft innovative solutions to current challenges. As Kuthirummal explains, it might be possible to one day inject a cancer patient with gold nanoparticles designed to attach to cancer cells. When the gold nanoparticles are heated with infrared light or a radio frequency field, they could destroy the cancerous cells they’re bonded to.

Other scientists have envisioned microscopic machines repairing cryogenically frozen organs. Others imagine the computer chip being re-engineered at an incredibly smaller scale. And yet others, like science-fiction writer Michael Crichton, speak of doomsday scenarios in which self-replicating nanorobots slowly consume the earth’s matter in order to make more copies of themselves, converting everything into a mass of what’s commonly referred to as “gray goo.” While all these scenarios have their skeptics and a host of practical challenges, many scientists agree nanotechnology opens up an entire new world of possibilities.

“Whatever we are dreaming right now could be a technology 10 to 20 years from now,” says Kuthirummal, who is developing tiny semiconductors made of cadmium sulfide in his lab.

In conjunction with researchers at Clemson University, he is trying to develop nanorods of cadmium sulfide to make a set of standardized nanowires for use in semiconductors. To the naked eye, though, these samples of cadmium sulfide rods are small mounds of yellow powder. Only when seen under the electron microscope are the rods, piled atop each other like spilled pick-up sticks, visible.

But, to Kuthirummal, this is no game. For him, nanotechnology represents one of the best ways for scientists to radically change the world, no matter how far-fetched some applications may seem: “This is going to be the reality at some point.”

And, let’s face it, that’s going to be a really big deal.