Seeing the Small Stuff

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 20, 2008 | Go to article overview

Seeing the Small Stuff


Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

In what was described as "a big day for the science of small stuff," the University of Oregon on Tuesday officially opened the doors of a new underground laboratory building dedicated to the study of materials a fraction of the width of a human hair.

The $16 million Lorry I. Lokey Laboratories building is the first new science building on the UO campus in almost 20 years. Its nanotechnology equipment and labs will serve as a state-of-the-art research center and a kind of high-tech extension service that offers instrument time to researchers at universities and technology companies around the world.

"The research conducted here will have profound implications for the Oregon economy," UO President Dave Frohnmayer said. "In these laboratories, researchers will look at everything from the composition and structure of atoms, to molecules ... to the scope of human life."

The building is the centerpiece of the UO's effort to establish itself as a player in the emerging field of nanotechnology, the study of materials at the nano scale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, approximately equal to the width of 10 atoms.

The building is also part of a statewide initiative - the Oregon Nano-science and Microtechnology Institute, or ONAMI - that includes the UO, Oregon State University, Portland State University, the federal Pacific Northwest National Laboratories and high-tech industries.

Observed and manipulated on the nano scale, common materials display radically different properties than they do at larger scales. Nanotechnology proponents say those properties offer the potential for huge advancement in everything from biology and health care to manufacturing and energy production.

Some forecast that nanotechnology could become a $3 billion industry generating 20 million high-skill jobs worldwide. But critics of the technology have raised red flags, saying that research should proceed slowly and cautiously until the potential environmental and health effects of nanotechnology are understood.

In that regard, the UO is considered a leader in what is known as green nanotechnology, which focuses on ways to produce nano materials with more environmentally benign materials and byproducts.

Although far from the largest laboratory of its kind, the UO facility offers some things that could rank it among the leaders in nanotechnology, its supporters say. For one, it offers instruments that allow researchers to probe different aspects of matter in one location; for another, it makes that equipment available to others. …

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