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.
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.
Essentially all of our technology is built by manipulating materials on length scales between a tenth of a billionth of a meter (atom-sized) and a thousand meters (skyscraper-sized). We call this range of sizes "funsize."
Scientists and engineers are making smaller and smaller structures designed to control the quantum states of electrons in a material. By controlling quantum mechanics, we can create new materials that do not exist in nature, develop more efficient solar cells and faster computer chips, and even discover exotic new states of matter.