Have you ever wondered why shining light on a glass of water causes rainbows to appear? Or noticed the colors that reflect from a CD or DVD? In this lesson, you will make an instrument called a spectroscope that can separate light into its hidden components. You will also be able to use the spectroscope to understand why different colored objects and light sources appear the way they do.
Surface tension is a somewhat peculiar force. Its effects are all around us, but since it tends to act at the scale of millimeters or smaller, we don’t always notice it. It’s critical, however, for many creatures smaller than us, from water-walking insects to star-nosed moles that sniff out food underwater. So what is surface tension and where does it come from?
For the past two decades, giant bubble enthusiasts have been creating soap film bubbles of ever-increasing volumes. As of 2020, the world record for a free-floating soap bubble stands at 96.27 cubic meters, a volume equal to about 25,000 U.S. gallons! For a spherical bubble, this corresponds to a diameter of more than 18 feet and a surface area of over 1,000 square feet. How are such large films created and how do they remain stable? What is the secret to giant bubble juice? Click to find out more!
How can you fabricate a huge number of nanostructures in a split second? Self-assembly is a fast technique for the mass production of materials and complex structures. But before self-assembly is ready for prime time, scientists need to establish ways to control this process, so that desired nanostructures emerge from the unstructured soup of basic building blocks that are fast-moving atoms and molecules.
When light strikes a material, electrons may be ejected from the material. This is called the photoelectric effect, and it’s the basis for many different technologies that convert light energy into electrical energy to generate current. In addition, the photoelectric effect is useful to scientists studying novel materials.
Superconductors are materials that permit electrical current to flow without energy loss. Their amazing properties form the basis for MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) devices and high-speed maglev trains, as well as emerging technologies such as quantum computers. At the heart of all superconductors is the bunching of electrons into pairs. Click the image to learn more about the "dancing" behavior of these electron pairs!
Self-assembly is the process by which individual building blocks—at the smallest level, atoms—spontaneously form larger structures. The structures they form depend on the size and shape of the building blocks, and on the conditions to which these building blocks are exposed. This can be demonstrated quite simply using breakfast cereal, or for more complex cases using specially prepared Legos.
Instead of pencil, paper, and eraser, we can use combinations of lasers and magnetic materials to write, read, and and erase information by varying the temperature and magnetic field. Here we apply our laser "pencil" to magnetic "paper" to write the letter “N” (Go Cornhuskers!!). This technique allows us write, erase, and rewrite tiny magnetic memories like those found in your computer hard drive and other devices, using a precise, non-contact tool. Click to learn more about how it works!
In most magnetic materials, the magnetic moments of individual atoms are aligned parallel to one another and point in the same direction. In special structures called skyrmions and antiskyrmions, however, they are arranged in a spiraling pattern. Their stability and compact size makes skyrmions and antiskyrmions especially useful for encoding lots of data in a small space. But a few questions need to be answered before skyrmion-based technology can be used in your iPhone or other memory devices. First, why do these magnetic structures form in some materials and not others? How can we design a system where they will form? And how can we generate these structures on demand? Click to find out!
Recent progress in materials science has led to the creation of new magnetic materials in which the magnetism follows complex patterns. The formation of these patterns depends on a phenomenon called spin-orbital coupling. Because they can be manipulated by electric currents and temperature changes, materials exhibiting these interesting magnetic patterns may have applications in magnetic memories and logic devices. Click to learn how!
In phase-change memory (PCM), nanoscale volumes of a special kind of glass compound are heated by very short electrical pulses, causing the atomic structure of the material to switch between an ordered phase and a disordered phase. These phase-change materials have been used for years to store data on rewritable CDs and DVDs, but until recently, the large energy required to change the state of the material has made it impractical for electronic memory. If this challenge can be overcome, phase-change memory can be integrated with conventional silicon electronics for high-capacity data storage and more efficient computation. Click to read more about how we are working to make this new technology a reality!
We tend to think of materials as either electrical conductors or insulators: some materials, like metals, have low electrical resistance and conduct electricity easily, while others, like wood or plastic, have high electrical resistance and do not readily conduct electricity. Strange experimental results, however, reveal large fluctuations in the electrical resistance of thin metallic nanowires when a magnetic field or charge difference is applied to them. Click to learn how a more nuanced understanding of electron behavior helps to explain these variations in electrical resistance that may revolutionize the tech industry!
You may know helium as the gas that can make balloons and blimps float. At the University of Maryland, scientists are using this element to study the exotic physics of quantum vortices: the tornadoes or bathtub-drain whirls of the quantum world. Knowing how quantum vortices work could help us better understand other turbulent events (like wind and ocean currents), as well as the complex physical behavior of superconductors and neutron stars.
The electric eel's ability to generate incredibly large amounts of electric power from within its body has fascinated scientists for centuries. In fact, some of the world’s first batteries were inspired by studies of this amazing animal. Now, scientists have developed a new eel-inspired energy source that may one day be used to power electronics implanted within the human body.
Very small structures, much smaller than the human eye can see, often fall in the size range of nanometers. By understanding how the molecules that make up these structures interact, we can engineer them to do many special things that cannot be done at a larger scale. One exciting structure is a polymer brush, in which long, chain-like molecules called polymers are tethered at one end to a surface and stick up from the surface like bristles on a hairbrush. Polymer brushes can be used to keep bacteria away, provide an exceptionally smooth surface for items to slide across, or trap other molecules in solution like a hairbrush traps loose hair. In order to engineer polymer brushes that will perform as desired for a given application, we must understand the physics of how the molecular bristles move, and the chemistry of how they interact with their environment.
At ordinary temperatures and at the subatomic level, chaos is the rule. At low enough temperatures, however, electrons are constrained, forming exotic phases that exhibit long-range order, or repeating patterns.
You’re lining up your phone to take a picture of your dog. Light comes down from the sun, bounces off the dog, and into your camera lens, allowing you to take the photo. Your eyes work similarly, taking in all the light particles, known as photons, that are scattering off of objects in the world. Most things “see” by detecting these bouncing photons, which is why both you and your phone have a hard time seeing anything at all when the lights are off.
Biophysics is a field that applies knowledge of physics to understand and explain biological phenomena. Biophysicists study life at different levels, from atoms and molecules to cells, organisms, and their environments. They focus on questions such as how proteins function, how nerve cells communicate, how viruses invade human cells, how plants absorb sunlight and convert it into food, and so on. Biophysics has contributed significantly to improving human health in multiple ways, and the study of protein-protein interactions is an especially important biophysical topic. By exploring the molecular basis of complicated biomedical diseases, biophysicists help to develop methods to treat these diseases.
At low temperatures, helium—the same substance that makes balloons float—becomes a special type of liquid known as a superfluid, which has zero viscosity. It's like the anti-molasses! The properties of superfluids are governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. More specifically, the atoms in superfluid helium are “entangled” with each other, allowing them to share information and influence each other’s behavior in ways that are totally foreign to our everyday experience, and which Einstein famously described as "spooky action at a distance." Better still, scientists have recently discovered that the law controlling entanglement between different parts of a helium superfluid is the same as that governing the exotic behavior of black holes in outer space.
To increase our use of solar energy, we need to create more efficient, stable, and cost-effective solar cells. What if we could use an inkjet printer to fabricate them? A new type of solar cell uses a class of materials called perovskites, which have a special crystal structure that interacts with light in a way that produces an electric voltage. We've developed a method to produce perovskite thin films using an inket printer, which in the future could pave the way to manufacture solar cells that are surprisingly simple and cheap.
Neutron radiation detection is an important issue for the space program, satellite communications, and national defense. But since neutrons have no electric charge, they can pass through many kinds of solid objects without stopping. This makes it difficult to build devices to detect them, so we need special materials that can absorb neutrons and leave a measurable signature when they do. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are studying the effects of solar neutron radiation on two types of materials on the International Space Station (ISS), using detectors made of very stable compounds that contain boron-10 and lithium-6.