Nanotech & Nanoscale: Tiny Science

Dr. Jorge Hernandez Charpak
University of Colorado, Boulder
Science Discovery Teen Café


Written by Youth Leader, Jackson Carter

Teens are creating circuits in parallel and in series.

Teens created circuits in parallel and in series to explore the properties of nano-materials.

At the October Science Discovery Teen Café in Boulder, we welcomed Dr. Jorge Hernandez Charpak (a.k.a. Nico), a postdoc working at the University of Colorado on his research in nanotechnology or nanotech, a branch of technology that investigates objects of less than 100 nanometers.Things this small can have unusual properties, and the implications for using nanotechnology in everyday life are wide-ranging, from medicine, to computing, to sunscreens.

Nico was born in France and grew up in Colombia before moving to the United States to pursue his PhD. At the café, we discussed different cutting edge nano-scale technologies, as well as the fabrication of such technologies by way of the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. Interestingly, many shapes that are very strong on the nanoscale prove to be rather brittle on a macroscopic level, a paradox that researchers like Nico and his colleagues are attempting to unravel. Nico explained that, on such a scale, the equations given by Newtonian or even Relativistic physics begin to break down, though objects at this scale are still too large to apply the principles of Quantum Mechanics. What we arrive at is a bizarre middle-ground between the two great hemispheres of our understanding of physics, making nanotech a highly attractive area of research for physicists all over the world. A large portion of the café was dedicated to discussing the inner-workings of transistors. Nico told us that transistors allow us to control the flow of current and thereby, through a myriad of combinations, also allow us to engineer computers to complete complex tasks such as mathematical calculations. Nanotechnology in computers makes use of nanomaterials, tiny molecule-sized machines that process information similarly to the intricate and complex cells in a living organism. Computer manufacturers create long, microscopic strands of carbon atoms, called carbon nanotubes, into tiny transistors that provide twice the processing power of silicon chips, while generating much less heat and lighter components. Additionally, nanotechnology applications offer more efficient performance, thus conserving power and increasing battery life for smaller, portable electronic devices. Nanotechnology forums are springing up around the world because of their increasing pervasiveness in our lives.

Hands on Activity

Our activity was dedicated to understanding transistors; we were divided into two groups: electrons and transistors. Transistors were instructed to hold their hands out such that electrons were unable to pass (inhibiting the flow of current), while electrons tried to pass to the other side of the transistor. Two transistors may be set up in parallel, allowing current to flow if only one transistor is open, or in series, only allowing current to flow if both are open. Nico explained that using these two formats in different arrangements, the basis for modern computer engineering is formed. The activity was a great way to get students involved, especially in understanding a topic that is such a far cry from the macroscopic world that we’re so used to interacting with. By embodying transistors and electrons, we were able to deepen our understanding of their functions and behaviors.