Kansas State research team receives $1 million grant

To conduct curiosity-based nanoscience and technology research

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Science is a never-ending quest to understand how nature works, and it is curiosity that can drive scientist to spend long hours in their labs or at their desks in calculations.

Chris Sorensen is a firm believer in curiosity-based research.

Sorensen, a Kansas State University distinguished professor of physics and adjunct professor of chemistry, will put his belief in curiosity-based research to work with a four-year, $1 million grant he and an interdisciplinary team of researchers have received from the National Science Foundation's Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team Award program. They will conduct curiosity-based nanoscience and technology research.

Other team members include Amit Chakrabarti, professor and interim head of the department of physics; Bruce Law, professor of physics; Ken Klabunde, university distinguished professor of chemistry; Christer Aakeroy, professor of chemistry; and Xiaomin Lin, a scientist at Argonne National Lab. Lin earned his master's, under Klabunde, and his doctorate, under Sorenson, from K-State.

"This is an attempt to get a team of people with different talents together to do research in nanoscience and technology," Sorensen said.

According to Sorensen, the research team has developed a chemical method where they can make particles of nanometer dimensions -- or one-billionth of a meter in size.

"The particles are so small their properties are different than bulk macroscopic pieces of the same material," Sorensen said. "For example, we can make five nanometer particles of gold that are purple in color instead of golden. In fact, we can change the properties of nearly any material by changing its size at the nano-level."

Another important aspect of the team's method is that the particles they make are nearly all the same size. According to Sorensen, when these particles come together they can form an ordered array of particles in a system called a "superlattice." That lattice resembles pennies placed in "hexagonal arrays on a tabletop," he said.

"Nature makes lattices all the time," Sorensen said. "We call them crystals, which are lattices of atoms. Our grand goal is to mimic all the crystalline materials that nature has given us with superlattices of particles, where the particles act like superatoms."

Sorensen said these particles open up a world of "what ifs" -- a new way of doing things, possibly creating a whole new world of materials based not on atoms and molecules, but on particles sitting in "nice crystal superlattices."

"The cool thing is that nature comes with about 92 different atoms in the periodic table and it's a beautiful thing," Sorensen said. "It's this magic workshop where we can take this atom and that atom and make nearly anything we want. But now with our particles, we have a new, expanded periodic table because we can vary not only the material of the particles, but the size of the particles to get different properties."

The research has a long way to go, Sorenson said.

"This is where you start. You start with dreams and crazy ideas, but you can see some of them are definitely materializing here," he said. "That's what this grant is about: chemists who can make unusual particles and physicists who should be able, once these things are made, to manipulate them to form various structures.

"Everybody is foreseeing a very bright future in all kinds of different perspectives for nanoscience and technology," Sorensen said. "The two together, coordinated in a good fashion, will reshape our world."


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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