What goes on in the orange world behind the glass walls of the nanotechnology building? The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Engineering professor Mark Allen, the Inaugural Scientific Director of the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, to get an inside look.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: What does “nanotechnology” actually mean?
Mark Allen: The best way to describe it is applying the science of the very small. There are two interesting things that happen when things get really small. One is that by being able to put very small things in close proximity you can build up complex systems. Weird quantum things also start to occur; things you normally think are intuitive, stop being intuitive.
DP: Why has this field become so popular recently?
MA: Over the past 20 years, the ability to manipulate things on small scales has become available. There have been tremendous examples of impactful successes, like the integrated circuit, that allow people to see the benefit of making things smaller and smaller.
DP: What is your area of research?
MA: Our research group is in the area of MEMS, which stands for micro-electro-mechanical systems. A lot of things that are sensed in the natural world are through these mechanical structures. For example, iPhones have small accelerometers inside that measure the acceleration due to gravity and adjusts the screen appropriately. These small mechanical structures started off as devices in cars to fire off airbags, since then they have become widespread.
DP: What are other applications for your research in MEMS?
MA: Some other things we’ve done in our group — we’ve built devices that are planted in the body and are used to measure pressures inside the body. This information can be communicated wirelessly to doctors and they can figure out how best to help people with heart failure.
DP: Why is the nanotech building so orange?
MA: In the fabrication process, we do a lot of photolithography [a technique used to transfer patterns onto a material], which is light sensitive. We have to screen out the portion of the light spectrum that has more energy than yellow. A lot of natural sunlight shines into our facility, so we put up a shield that lets only orange and red light in. The architects thought that the orange was cool and decided to make the rest of the building orange as well.
DP: Is Penn unique to other universities in its dedication to nanotechnology research?
MA: We do have peer institutions also pursuing this field. That said, it’s a significant investment that the University has to make to do research in this field, and not every university has that capability; we are very lucky.
DP: What do you think the future of nanotechnology will be?
MA: I think it will, at the same time, be very pervasive and unobtrusive in everyone’s lives. So you’ll walk past a window that also generates electricity from sunshine, but you won’t think about it. Or you might think about the Internet of Things that people have been talking about, where the world becomes smart because it is studded with sensors or other things, a lot of this sensing technology will be micro- and nano-based.
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