Tiny materials, big changes: McGill announces new minor program in nanotechnology

McGill’s Faculty of Engineering launched a new minor program this year that explores into the world of nanotechnology. It’s a relatively young field that focuses on nanomaterials—materials that have one dimension measuring 100 nanometres or less. Nanomaterials are so tiny they often can’t even be seen under a microscope—in fact, a sheet of newspaper is approximately 100,000 nanometers thick!  Types of nanomaterials are further broken down to carbon-based, metal-based, dendrites—a polymer chain of nanoparticles—and composites—combination of nanoparticles with other materials. These nanomaterials have a wide variety of characteristics such as unique thermal, electrical, and magnetic properties.

Matter of this small scale has made big changes to the world around us. A report published in 2010, titled Nanotechnology Research Direction for Societal Needs in 2020, estimates around $2.6 trillion USD worth of products will incorporate nanotechnology by 2020.

Nanotechnology is already incorporated in many consumer products. For example, most sunscreen now contains titanium oxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles because they are more effective at absorbing UV rays than larger particles. Other skin care products, such as anti-aging creams, contain lipid nanostructures, which are biocompatible and can transport chemicals into our cells more effectively. Nanotechnology enhances the production of smartphones and laptops, as it can create computer chips capable of reaching higher processing speeds, resulting in faster and more affordable electronics. There are even nanomaterial paints that are water-resistant, bacteria-resistant, and scratch-resistant.  

Even more innovations are expected to come into a wide variety of consumer products in the future.

“Nanomaterials are going to be very prominent in our everyday lives,” Assistant Professor Nathalie Tufenkji, of McGill’s Department of Chemical Engineering, said.  “We’re incorporating these materials into our everyday consumer products […] we’re putting these materials on our skin, […] in our paints, and electronics that we are contacting everyday.”

The new engineering minor program aims to introduce undergraduates to techniques in nanomaterial characterization and detection, as well as nanomaterial synthesis and processing. These concepts will be covered in courses such as Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Supramolecular Chemistry, and Design and Manufacture of Microdevices.

Tufenkji, along with Professor Peter Grutter in the Department of Physics were instrumental in organizing this program. The minor is interdepartmental and includes courses in physics and engineering.

“Of course there’s a flipside on how do we best develop nanotechnology to […] take advantage of its promise,” Tufenkji said. “One of the questions […] is what are the potential impacts on our health and environment of nanomaterials?”

Tufenkji believes it is important that Canada has scientists and engineers that are educated in emerging scientific concepts and cutting-edge technology. Giving undergraduate students exposure to nanotechnology research early in their studies is a good stepping stone for further investigation into the evolving field.

For more information on this minor: https://www.mcgill.ca/study/2016-2017/faculties/engineering/undergraduate/programs/bachelor-engineering-beng-minor-nanotechnology

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