A Knack for Nanoscience

An interview with Dr. Amanda Petford-Long

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Aerial shot of Argonne National Laboratory, where Dr. Petford-Long heads up the Nanoscience and Technology Division.

Dr. Amanda Petford-Long is the director of the Nanoscience and Technology Division, and Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory. She is also a professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University. A native of Britain, she holds degrees from University College London and the University of Oxford.

Petford-Long will be speaking at the Chicago Council on Science & Technology’sThe Nature of Nano” event on Wednesday, December 11, where she will discuss the field of nanoscience and the research being done at Argonne.

Science in Society spoke with Dr. Petford-Long to learn more about the work she is doing at Argonne, and the career path she took to get there.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Amanda Petford-LongPhoto courtesy of Dr. Amanda Petford-Long

Tell me about your position as director of Argonne's Nanoscience and Technology Division. What are your responsibilities?

As the division director I am responsible for overseeing the scientific strategy of the division as a whole. Mostly I keep a broad overview of what is going on in nanoscience and nanotechnology to make sure that we are at the cutting edge, and that we are remaining current. 

Within the division we have two of the U.S. Department of Energy’s scientific user facilities. There is the Center for Nanoscale Materials and the Electron Microscopy Center. The user facilities take people from all over the world. They write short proposals and, if the proposal is accepted, they can come and use our facilities for free for work that is publishable.

For example, we have users from one of the high schools in Chicago, and they come on a weekly basis. We also have a lot of undergrad and graduate students from Northwestern and other local universities. We have postdocs, faculty, industry, and people from other national labs. So, it’s a very exciting environment to work in. In addition, we have a staff of about 40 scientists.

How did you come to specialize in materials science and engineering? 

I went through my K-12, undergraduate and graduate education in the United Kingdom. Things are a little bit different over there. We specialize for the last two years of high school in four subjects instead of the broader range that is done here. 

I was always interested in science. Actually, both my parents are physicists, so that always meant we had a lot of science around, but didn’t mean I had to go into science. However, I guess I had more exposure to it. 

I got really interested in electron microscopy in high school because I was fascinated by the fact that you could see inside a crystal and look at the arrangement of the atoms. Understanding arrangement (the structure) helps you understand how the material behaves. That was really fascinating to me.

So, when I went to university as an undergraduate, I studied physics and then for my graduate degree I did materials science and I specialized in electron microscopy at Oxford University. From there, I knew that materials is what I wanted to go on and do, and that I wanted to work in an area of materials science where there would be some technological relevance to what I would do. I wouldn’t make devices, but I would work on materials that somebody down the line might make a device out of. I would understand the basic way they behaved and then I would hand on that information to somebody else to do the engineering. 

I’m interested in the fact that you chose to study physics. I think when a lot of students think of microscopy they probably think of looking at cells under a microscope in biology class. So, how is physics the gateway to materials science? 

I think if you look at a materials science department, at Northwestern for example, faculty will have backgrounds in biology, chemistry, physics, materials science and engineering. It’s a really broad range of backgrounds. And, you need all those different types of people to work together in materials science to understand how materials behave. So, for me, it was quite a natural decision to go into physics, because I knew the kinds of materials I wanted to work on were not biological materials, but hard materials. But, there are lots of different ways into the field, I think. 

What are nanoscale materials?

They are materials whose properties are very different when you make them very small. 

So, I’ll give you one specific example: a piece of gold. Everybody knows what color gold is. If you make gold very, very small at the nanoscale – maybe a little particle with hundreds or maybe a thousand atoms in it – then if you look at it, if you hold it up to the light, the particles are red, not gold anymore. And that is because at that really small scale they interact differently with light. So, it’s not just that we have made something smaller, but a nanomaterial also behaves differently when you make it smaller. 

We all actually use nanoscale materials. If you have a computer, the layer that contains all your very valuable bits of information in the hard disk drive that you use is about 12 nanometers thick. If you wear sunscreen, which I hope everybody does in the summer, what protects you are the nanoscale particles that interact with the sunlight and prevent the UV light reaching into your skin and damaging it. People now sell Band-Aids that have little silver nanoparticles embedded in them because for thousands of years people have known that silver is antibacterial. 

What role might nanomaterials play in the future? 

There is a lot of research around the world to develop new batteries. The real problem with batteries is they’re not very efficient. The reason they’re not very efficient is that when you make a battery you want a negative electron to go one way and a hole (think of it as a positive electron) to go another way. The particles have to travel a long way through the battery. Imagine the electron moving through the material –  it may bounce off the atoms and gets slowed down or scattered in different directions. Think of it like pinball machine. So, if the electron has to travel a shorter difference, it’s less likely to run into an atom. So, we want to use nanomaterials to make batteries where the electron, or the charge, only has to cover a very short difference before it gets to where you want it to be. 

We want to put different types of nanoparticles together to do artificial photosynthesis. We want to mimic what plants can do very naturally when they take sunlight in and they make energy from it. 

We want to understand catalysis. A catalyst is something that makes some type of reaction happen faster or makes one specific reaction happen rather than ones that we don’t want. So, we want to be able to design these catalysts. 

Why is it important to share scientific research with the public? 

At the most basic level, we are funded by the government; we are funded by the tax payers. I think that it is very important that people understand why what we are doing is important, and I think it’s up to us to do that. I think it’s wrong when scientists just expect the public to know that the science they’re trying to do is important or relevant. I think it is our job to get up and actually explain to people why what we are doing is relevant to them and why it might be important. 

Another reason why this is very important is that scientific research takes time. We might develop a material this year but it might not get into a product for five or ten years, because there are a lot of steps that have to be gone through. We look at the really basic science of what happens, but then somebody else is going to take that little piece of material we’ve worked on and actually put it into a device. I don’t think that this time lag is always well understood.. Fundamental science that we are doing now leads to a product people will be using in five- to ten-years time. And, if we stop the research and the fundamental science, then the country isn’t going to have new innovations and new technology in the future. 

What advice do you have for students who are interested in pursuing careers in nanotechnology? 

There are a lot of different ways into nanotechnology and nanoscience. 

If I look at the staff at my own center, we have people with backgrounds in chemistry, physics, engineering, biology, and in math. Obviously we have people who do a lot of calculations of nanomaterials on the computer. 

I think math is something that frightens a lot of people off. It’s a language that scientists use and it’s a very important language. But, not all areas of nanoscience require as much math as some people think. So, if math isn’t your strong point, you’re able to choose, perhaps, a more biological route into the field. 

But all areas are science and math/technology based so that is certainly something you want to start with as part of your education. 

I think being able to communicate is really important. So, taking those English language classes and communication skills classes is also very important. 

"The Nature of Nano" will be held on Northwestern's Chicago campus from 5:00pm to 8:00pm on Wednesday, December 11. The lecture is free and open to the public. To register in advance, visit the Chicago Council on Science & Technology's website.

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