What is Nanoscience?
My name is Edward Lewis and I’m a PhD student at the University of Manchester. Doing a PhD takes 3 or 4 years and during that time you dedicate yourself to studying one topic in great depth with the hope of discovering something completely new. My area of study is Nanoscience. “Nano” refers to objects of a certain size. A nanometre (nm) is 1 millionth of a millimetre, that’s a really small distance: a human hair is 80,000nm wide! Nanoscience is all about studying things that are nano sized. Materials that are only a few nm long have all sorts of weird, surprising, and useful properties.
My work is about making and looking at nanomaterials. There are two types of nanomaterial that I’m interested in: the first are tiny spherical particles called quantum dots and the second are super thin sheets of carbon, only a single atom thick, called graphene. Looking at really small things is surprisingly hard: we need to use massive, complicated and very expensive machines to do this. These bits of equipment are called transmission electron microscopes.
One of the reasons that I’m interested in making and seeing nanomaterials is that they could help us make better more efficient solar panels. Generating clean renewable energy is a big concern in the modern world and I think nanoscience has a big part to play in solving problems like climate change.
At school I always enjoyed science and I went on the spend 4 years at Oxford studying for a Chemistry degree. Since coming to Manchester to do a PhD I’ve not used a whole lot of the Chemistry I was taught in my degree but have had the exciting experience of learning a lot about new areas of science and working with people from completely different subjects to me. Modern scientific research is very collaborative. Some people imagine scientists as antisocial men who toil alone in the lab until, eventually, they make some amazing discovery. However, in reality, team work is a vital part of almost every scientist’s work. The skills and knowledge needed to do cutting edge research are just too vast for any one person to have them all. Nanoscience sits somewhere on the boundary between the traditional scientific disciplines; there are nanoscientists who work in Biology, Medicine, Chemistry, Physics, Materials Science, and Electronic Engineering. On a day to day basis I spend a lot of time running between the 3 different labs I work in. I work in a chemistry lab making quantum dots, with physicists on graphene, and go to the materials science building to do electron microscopy.
One of the weird things about nanomaterials is that their properties are size dependent. This isn’t the case for normal materials: if you had two lumps of the same steel, one bigger that the other, they would still have the same properties (melting point, resistivity, strength etc.). However, if you have two nanoparticles, one 3nm across the other 5nm across, they will have very different properties.
For example: we can make quantum dots almost any colour simply by changing their size.
Similarly, solar panels turn sunlight into electricity, they work because when particles of light (photons) hit the solar panel they make electrons jump up to a higher energy. Normally one particle of light can move one electron, however, in quantum dots one particle of light can move more than one electron. These two weird properties of nano sized materials, the ability to choose their colour by changing their size and the possibility of getting more than one electron from one photon, mean that we should be able to make super-efficient solar panels in the future.
I really enjoy my PhD research. One of the best things about doing a PhD is that you are your own boss: you get make a lot of the important decisions about your work. Being able to dedicate 4 years to a single project is also very cool; by the end of your PhD there is a good chance you will be one of the world experts in the small area of science that you have been studying, hopefully you will have discovered something that no one before you knew. I like the fact that everyday I’m learning something new and that I get the opportunity to work with interesting intelligent people from all around the world.
If you’d like to find out more about nanoscience, Steven Fry has made a video about this exciting area of science.
One of the nanomaterials I work with is graphene; it won two Manchester scientists the Nobel Prize. This BBC news report tells you a little about it. You can see one of the electron microscopes I use in this video clip.
I’ve talked a bit about quantum dots and how they might be useful for making solar panels. Some scientists think they could also be useful in treating cancer. In this clip you can see how, as I mentioned, different sized particles have very different colours.
For further information about studying Materials Science at The University of Manchester, the department webpage provides a lot of useful information.