Conversations in Science
for K-12 Educators

A program conceived and organized by the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with the collaboration of the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Edgewood Sonderegger Science Center.

Thursday, March 18, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Nanoscale science and the nano-bio interface

Robert J. Hamers
Professor of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison


The nanotechnology revolution is based upon a number of important advances in our scientific understanding of the behavior of matter and materials on nanometer length scales. The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope in the 1980's allowed scientists to image individual atoms and molecules and lead to the development of tools for manipulating and assembling materials on the nanoscale. The discovery in the 1990's of carbon nanotubes, which a ~ 1 nanometer-diameter wires with a tensile stress stronger than steel, further accelerated the interest in nanoscale materials and their potential application.

Despite these advances, practical implementation of nanoscale materials requires the development of methods that can more easily manipulate them and assemble individual nanoscale components into functional nanoscale systems with a high degree of complexity. One major goal is to leverage the existing infrastructure in microelectronics technology and extend it by providing new types of functionality, such as chemical and/or biological sensing, that are not a traditional part of existing microelectronics. In achieving this goal, there is a general trend away from “hard” materials and toward “soft” materials, and a more general change in viewpoint to look at biological systems as a guide for how to construct nanoscale systems. Even a simple cell, for example, is comprised of a number of nanoscale objects (cell walls, organelles, etc.) that assemble into a structure whose complexity and functionality dwarfs what can be made in the laboratory.

We explore the integration of microelectronics technology with new types of nanoscale and biological materials for applications in bio-electronic sensing and nanotechnology. At the moment there is tremendous interest in fabricating ultra-dense chemical and biological sensors with thousands or millions of sensor elements, fabricated from nanoscale building-blocks such as carbon nanotubes. Our research integrates ideas from chemistry (precise chemical modification of nanomaterials), biology (using biomolecular recognition), physics (use of electric/magnetic fields for manipulation) and electrical engineering (electrical characterization of tiny little objects). Ultimately, we think of ourselves as molecular architects, attempting to control the form and function of materials through the power of chemistry.

About the Presenter:

Robert Hamers was born and raised in Kenosha , Wisconsin . He escaped from Kenosha after graduating from high school in 1976 and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, receiving his B.S. degree in Chemistry in 1980. He received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cornell University in 1986. Shortly before completing his Ph.D. work, he joined the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights , N.Y. , where he became involved in the newly invented technique of scanning tunneling microscopy. He left IBM in 1990 to return to Madison as an Associate Professor and was promoted to Full Professor in 1994. He is the author of more than 150 scientific papers and is the recipient of a number of awards including a National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellowship, Vilas Award and Kellett Mid-Career Award from UW-Madison, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His research group focuses on interfaces of microelectronic materials (silicon, diamond) with organic and biological materials.

References and Suggested Readings

Robert J. Hamers, "Integrating Biological Molecules with Group IV Semiconductors for Bioelectronic Sensing", in "Bioelectronics: Theory and Application", E. Katz and I. Willner, editors, VCH publishers, in press 2004.

Sarah Baker, Wei Cai, Tami Lasseter, Kevin Weidkamp, and Robert J. Hamers, " Covalently-bonded adducts of DNA with single-wall carbon nanotubes: Synthesis and hybridization ", Nano Letters, 2, 1413-1417 (2002).

Wensha Yang, James E. Butler, Wei Cai, John Carlisle, Dieter Gruen, Tanya Knickerbocker, John N. Russell, Jr., Lloyd M. Smith, and Robert J. Hamers, " DNA-modified nanocrystalline diamond films as stable, biologically active substrates ", Nature Materials, 1 , 253-257 (2002).