A clever new microscope design allows nanotechnology researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to track the motions of nanoparticles in solution as they dart around in three dimensions. The researchers hope the technology, which NIST plans to patent, will lead to a better understanding of the dynamics of nanoparticles in fluids and, ultimately, process control techniques to optimize the assembly of nanotech devices.
While some nanoscale fabrication techniques borrow from the lithography and solid state methods of the microelectronics industry, an equally promising approach relies on directed self-assembly. This capitalizes on physical properties and chemical affinities of nanoparticles in solutions to induce them to gather and arrange themselves in desired structures at desired locations. Potential products include extraordinarily sensitive chemical and biological sensor arrays, and new medical and diagnostic materials based on quantum dots and other nanoscale materials. But when your product is too small to be seen, monitoring the assembly process is difficult.
Microscopes can help, but a microscope sees a three-dimensional fluid volume as a 2-D plane. Theres no real sense of the up and down movement of particles in its field of view except that they get more or less fuzzy as they move across the plane where the instrument is in focus. To date, attempts to provide a 3-D view of the movements of nanoparticles in solution largely have relied on that fuzziness. Optics theory and mathematics can estimate how far a particle is above or below the focal plane based on diffraction patterns in the fuzziness. The math, however, is extremely difficult and time consuming and the algorithms are imprecise in practice.
One alternative, NIST researchers reported at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society,* is to use geometry instead of algebra. Specifically, angled side walls of the microscopic sampl
|Contact: Michael Baum|
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)