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I recently took eighteen teenagers to 4-H Congress at NC State University. While they were in their workshops I was able to participate in a session myself. The workshop highlighted a coordinated effort called the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network or RTNN, consisting of  NC State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Duke University. I was originally planning to write an article about sunscreen; the controversy around safe products and the importance of protecting our skin from the harsh UV rays. However, while in my session at 4-H Congress when they asked me what I thought Nanotechnology was, my mind was changed! If you just pictured microscopic robots flying around like little fireflies you have, like me, watched too many science fiction movies. I learned that nanotechnology is actually any science, engineering, and technology happening at the nano-level involving particles that are one thousand times smaller than a human hair. What common everyday products use nanotechnology? Sunscreen was one of the answers and my attention was piqued. There are nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in some sunscreens that absorb and scatter the UV light but are invisible on your skin and therefore more comfortable to wear.

Engineers are always challenged to build smaller and more compact, for example, the microchip. As we approach the knowledge that smaller won’t be possible much longer, scientists have begun to stack nano-particles in creative ways to put more information in still smaller spaces.

The study of particles one hundred nanometers or less requires special equipment and protective suits, not to protect the humans but the items of study. If you have stood in a sunbeam you can imagine there are many things floating in the air much larger than the nano-particles being studied/created in the RTTN lab at NC State University. These tiny skin and dust particles are larger than a nano-particle and don’t belong between the layers of your microchip.

I also learned that patterns are applied to special surfaces with a UV light masking technique similar to the bleaching process that happens when a dark shirt is left out in the sun. These patterns give engineers a guide for building the next tiny “fill in the blank here.” We did a fun and creative activity illustrating this process.

I saw “dust” captured from a keyboard and magnified by an electron microscope. Dust could be more accurately described by a list of its components, as I found a tiny “speck” to contain; pollen, fibers, and one fly eyeball! Also, I highly recommend searching online for a photo of Velcro taken under an electron microscope.

The class I attended is available in Lee County through the NC State Extension. The RTNN can even bring a portable scanning electron microscope. Participants may bring samples of anything from home and see details magnified at a higher resolution than most any microscopes around. If you have an interest in seeing a demonstration in Lee County, I would love to offer a class. If you have a project and need that last bit of data for the science fair or a magnified image of the legs of a seed tick, we can make it happen. It is wonderful to be a part of the N.C. Cooperative Extension giving us access to great resources like these!

Pam Kerley is 4-H Program Assistant for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.