Quiet and invisible, for the most part

A peek inside the lab where gee-whiz predictions are generated

It was a quiet morning in Stanford University professor Yi Cui's lab in early March. A cluster of stained beakers littered one tabletop like leftover breakfast dishes.

The squat metal probing station used to take electric measurements sat silently nearby. And no one was using the glass box containing reactive chemicals, so its permanently attached rubber gloves stood out stiff as department-store mannequins.

But even on a busy day, labs using nanoscale processes are not necessarily the hectic, "by jove he's got it" sorts of places one might imagine. Despite glamorous predictions of what research could bring, the labs where innovations brew are relatively calm.

Conspicuously absent are bubbling beakers; roaring, churning machines; or chemical reactions sounding off like popcorn — none that human beings can see, anyway.

Rather, nanoscale events are mainly hidden from the naked eye. They require good measuring tools, such as the probing station, or powerful microscopes as tall as a professional basketball player to peer down into the atomic level.

In a lab at Palo Alto-based firm Nanosys, senior research scientist Cheri Pereira used a solution to sort out straight from wrinkled nanowires. The machine that helped sort the wires was about the size of Hershey's chocolate bar. And the pale gold shine of the resulting liquid was the only hint it was packed with tiny material.

At labs overseen by Stanford chemistry professor Hongjie Dai, devices to help manipulate and track carbon nanotubes ran with the background whirr of refrigerators, while students worked on laptops nearby.

Cui, Pereira, Dai and students will turn to carefully calibrated machines to check their work's progress — or to track it based on outcomes, such as detecting nanotubes by shining a laser to which they react.

So it is that the products of nanotechnology, frequently touted with pulse-raising predictions, reach the public only after years of monitoring processes often quiet and invisible.

— Arden Pennell

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