ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than 100 researchers, educators and engineers from around the country are diving headlong this week into the mysterious, fascinating and relatively new world of nanotechnology they love, a field that has already demonstrated that bigger is not always better.
“Nano” is a scientific term meaning one billionth. Nanotechnology is already making headway in such diverse areas as fighting disease, astrophysics, weaponry and even cleaning up the ocean after an oil spill.
The scientists and technicians were gathered at the Micro Nano Tech Conference 2014, a three-day conference sponsored by the Southwest Center for Microsystems Education and hosted, in large part, by the University of New Mexico. Two keynote speakers followed a luncheon Wednesday at the Configurable Space Microsystems Innovations & Applications Center, aka COSMIAC: Craig Kief, deputy director of COSMIAC, and Andrew Kwas, director of engineering at Northrop Grumman and a research professor at UNM.
Kief focused the bulk of his remarks on describing Trailblazer, a 4-inch cube satellite built by UNM students and researchers that blasted into orbit in November. The CubeSat, which relied heavily on nanotechnology, was the first to include electronic parts printed from a 3-D printer, a process in which a solid object of any shape can be created from a digital model.
“There is absolutely amazing educational stuff going on,” Kief said after describing the various layers of electronic circuitry and radio equipment packed into Trailblazer. “Neat, neat, neat stuff.”
Kief and COSMIAC are developing new versions of CubeSats designed to perform space weather analysis. He is aiming for a November launch.
Kwas said his role is to analyze things when they don’t work as planned, then find out why. He played a short video of a huge Russian Proton 10 rocket blasting off with a $280 million satellite as its payload. Almost immediately, the rocket began wobbling and veering off course, then – with smoke pouring out of its bottom – hung a quick U-turn and burst into flames just before crashing into the earth.
“There was a time when big was better,” Kwas said, but that ended a few years ago.
“Nanotechnology allows us to do things using quantum mechanics, at the atomic and molecular level, that were not (previously) possible,” he said. For example, a new satellite, compared with an older model with the same mission, represents a 96 percent reduction in mass.
He also discussed, briefly, the bionic hornet, a weapon under development for the past seven years by the Israeli military that would look and act like its infamous namesake but would be 100 percent human-made and programmable. And he mentioned graphene – a membrane that is only a single-atom thick, yet strong enough to hold water.
“We don’t have problems,” he told the audience. “We have challenges.”
Today’s keynote speaker will be Marc Madou, an engineering professor at the University of California, Irvine.