This semester PCC chemistry students will be building particles so small that they change color.
Gold, on the nano scale, ceases to have its signature color, but turns red.
All of this is thanks to three new nano particle machines purchased with the $5 million Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathamatics (STEM) grant.
One of the reasons for acquiring the new equipment, according to Professor Jared Ashcroft, is to connect students with science.
“What if we make chemistry kinda cool,” Ashcroft said. “I wanted to bring [in] more modern technology. Instead of trying to force students to do well, what if we try to motivate them to like it.”
“If you can get the students cool instruments, cool stuff that they can use, hopefully students will start liking science.”
The three new machines are a Phenon ProX Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), an Atomic Forces Microscope (AFM) and a Nano Particle Size Analyzer.
The SEM, which costs $130,000 can magnify samples up to 45,000 times, has resolution down to 40 nanometers.
There are one billion nanometers in a meter.
Despite the amazing amount of magnification, the machine itself looks like a nondescript computer tower. The bottom half opens and a prepared sample inserted. The image comes up on a screen next to the microscope, where it can be zoomed in and out, printed and molecularly analyzed.
The Atomic Forces Microscope (AFM), which costs $25,000, looks like a small scanner. It works on the principle of the atomic, or molecular forces that hold together particles.
It has a tip that is two nanometers wide, smaller than what can be viewed in the SEM. The tip moves up and down with the different positive or negative charges in the sample. The scientist receives a 3D image on the X, Y, and Z axis which can be used to create a visual representation of the length, width and height of the sample.
The Nano Particle Size Analyzer looks like an oversized thermos with a plastic straw sticking out of the top. It measures the size of each particle and the number of particles. It does this by passing the particles through an electric field and collects the data by measuring changes to the resistance to the field.
“What is great about this class is [that] it gives you the opportunity to actually use the instruments,” chemistry student Paul Priego said. “Having to figure it out, rather than having things handed to you.”
One of the reasons for purchasing the SEM, according to Ashcroft, was not just for students to get familiar with the instrument, but also to teach about scientific methodology.
“Science is about obtaining information,” he said. “Whether or not you get the right answer at the end isn’t important. Did you analyze it correctly?”
“The real goal is to make sure the students don’t write that they are successful when maybe it wasn’t successful,” he said. “Because there is a very high probability that it won’t be successful the first time.”
Ashcroft also discussed that teaching students to analyze their results correctly will lead to more creative scientific thought.
At the moment nanotechnology is mostly being used in the material sciences, creating stronger lighter materials, like better bullet-proof vests, lighter sailboat sails and golf clubs.
But Ashcroft discussed the breakthroughs in nanotechnology medicine that are hopefully around the corner. Gold nanoclusters may be used as host materials for antibodies to be introduced into the body, enter individual cells and specific light used to heat up the cluster, killing the cell. Cancer cells could be killed in this way.
“The thing about medicine is that it takes 20 to 30 years from inception to the idea to come to fruition,” Ashcroft said. “It has been about 15 years since these ideas. I would not be surprised in the next 10 years you would see a nano drug.”