Brookhaven Nanoscience and Nanomaterials

The study of nanomaterials—materials on the scale of a nanometer, or a billionth of a meter—is a burgeoning area of study in physics, as well as materials science, chemistry, and biology. This research is an important because many physical and chemical properties of a material change dramatically at the nanoscale. At Brookhaven, physicists collaborate with materials scientists, biologists, and chemists on various nanomaterial research projects.

One object under study is the carbon nanotube, a cylindrical carbon structure that is typically a few nanometers wide and can be up to millions of nanometers long. Carbon nanotubes possess exceptional electric and structural properties for their size, making them attractive for many applications. Now, Brookhaven scientists have found one more interesting property: A single nanotube can emit infrared light when a voltage is applied across it, which makes it the world’s first electrically controllable light emitter. This research is ongoing, and the scientists hope to find a way to make the nanotube emit visible light.

Physicists and other scientists at Brookhaven are also studying nanotubes made of materials other than carbon, such as the boron-nitrogen compound boron nitride, which may even have advantages over carbon. For example, boron nitride nanotubes are always insulators, while carbon nanotubes may display a less predictable mixture of metallic, semi-metallic, and semi-conducting properties. The scientists will look at the properties of boron nitride nanotubes and investigate if they can also emit light.

Another collaborative project is the study of “nanotoxicity,” which involves the reaction of cells to nanomaterials. For example, the scientists want to know if carbon nanotubes can penetrate, affect, and alter cell membranes, and if this ability depends on whether the tubes are “functionalized”—sheathed with another material to change their chemical make-up and function. They developed a model system for studying nanotoxicity using a variety of human cells. Their results show that biological cells respond selectively to proteins attached to the purified carbon nanotubes, and not to the nanotubes themselves.

Additionally, physicists at the Lab are working with biologists to study the behavior of water at the nanoscale, such as the water that exists in cells -- that is, molecular chains, called water wires, and extremely thin layers. Water wires are responsible for proton transport across cell membranes, which is a key step in cell energy production. To produce and study them, the researchers use a class of minerals called zeolites, which contain pores that neatly house a line of single water molecules, like tennis balls in a canister. Their work may lead to new information on nanoscale water, which scientists know little about.

The project has expanded to include Brookhaven chemists, who are interested in forcing gases, such as argon or krypton, in to the zeolite pores with the water. This creates very unusual gas-water structures, and allows the scientists to study the interactions between gas and water at a very small scale.

Research on nanoscale physics and nanomaterials will continue and grow at Brookhaven’s upcoming nanoscience research facility, the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN). The CFN will be a hub for cutting-edge nanoscience studies, and will focus on three key areas: nanocatalysis, the speeding up of chemical reactions using nanomaterials; biological and soft nanomaterials; and nanoelectronic materials, which are expected to lead to miniaturized electronic devices, ultrafast computer chips, and other advances in electronics. Moreover, these studies will further one main goal of the CFN: to help solve the country’s energy problems by researching practical alternatives to fossil fuels, such as hydrogen-based energy production and solar energy.

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Last Modified: October 2, 2012