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2007: The Nanostructure Problem

May 2007

Photo of Simon Billinge

Modern high performance materials are revolutionizing our lives, from light high strength metals in aviation to exotic electronic materials in our computers. The frontier in materials research is to design novel materials where we control the atomic arrangements on the nano-meter scale to obtain some desired functionality: the dream of nanotechnology.

In this week's journal Science, MSU physicist Simon Billinge, together with Igor Levin from NIST, describe a fundamental impediment to this dream: the nanostructure problem. The powerful tools of crystallography, which are currently used to map out the atomic-scale structure of bulk materials, fail on the nanoscale, precisely the domain where nanotechnologists need to characterize and control structure. Beyond describing the nanostructure problem, the authors propose a generic approach, "complex modeling" -- combining experimental results and theory in a coherent computational framework -- to solve this problem. Photo of NanostructuresThe structure problem - solving the structure of bulk crystals - was solved in the first half of the 20th century and gave rise to the materials revolution we have seen. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, a similar breakthrough is needed to solve the nanostructure problem and herald real materials control at the nanoscale and the next chapter in the materials revolution.

Further Reading: Simon J. L. Billinge and Igor Levin, Science 27 April 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5824, pp. 561 - 565