By Whitney Harder
(June 12, 2015) — The drive for miniaturization of devices is clear, as each new version of the iPhone, cameras, GPS systems, computers and so on becomes smaller and more powerful. Such miniaturization is possible thanks to advances in the microelectronics industry, yet this field could be revolutionized by moving from the micro to the “nano” scale by finding a way to use nanoparticles — particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size.
To put that in perspective, consider that a nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter and approximately 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
This is the scale of work for Beth Guiton, assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Chemistry. Guiton specifically investigates nanowires; how they grow and why they grow, which is not always well-understood. She recently received a $625,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for her efforts in the field. The CAREER Award is given in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and their integration.
"We are working to invent a new way of designing nanomaterials," Guiton said. "We want to control the way that little metal droplets behave so we can use them to grow something useful."
Nanomaterials have the potential for great impact in electronics, medicine, the environment and even apparel. But Guiton notes there has been little progress made in "putting these components where you want them," as they grow spontaneously.
Guiton and her team will combine a traditional growth mechanism, the vapor–liquid–solid method (VLS), with the reverse of that method, sold-liquid-vapor (SLV), enabling unprecedented control of a nanowire-template interface.
"We could grow materials used for any number of applications," she said.
Inspired by her undergraduate research experience at the University of Cambridge, where she earned her bachelor's degree in physical natural sciences, Guiton has also implemented an undergraduate education and research component in her NSF CAREER project.
"Undergraduate research experiences can have a really profound effect on future career decisions," Guiton said. "If you're not imagining yourself in a certain type of role, you won’t necessarily think to go for it. Typical courses don’t provide this — but undergraduate research helps to make that shift."
Calling it her "mission," Guiton aims to increase the number of undergraduates taking part in research experiences at UK, especially those who aren't yet sure about their interests. She recently won the UK College of Arts and Sciences' inaugural “Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentoring Award” for her activities in this area.
Guiton's joint faculty appointment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory allows her to connect UK students and faculty to the largest U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory. And for those students who are still deciding what path to travel, she teaches a course on crystals, or "the beginning of materials science," in A&S Wired, a Living Learning Program for freshmen.
Guiton also works to get students engaged in research projects early and often, before ever stepping foot on campus. Currently, she is collaborating with the UK College of Education to help middle school science teachers implement project-based learning in the classroom.
"As a leader in research and the flagship university of the Commonwealth, it's really important that the students who come here take advantage of the opportunities that present," she said.
Watch the video above from Guiton's lab to see a nanowire dissolve into nanoparticles and evaporate.