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National Geographic Recognizes World-Changing Discoveries

Northwestern scientists are lauded for nanolithography and molecular electronics

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March 22, 2012 | by Megan Fellman

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The discoveries of Northwestern University’s Chad A. Mirkin and Mark A. Ratner, both world-renowned pioneers in nanoscience, are featured in a special issue of National Geographic titled “100 Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World.”

The March 2012 issue investigates “inspiring technologies that forever altered our future and fascinating ideas that reflect the cutting-edge thinking of today.” Mirkin is lauded for his nanolithography invention and Ratner for his contributions to molecular electronics. Other world-changing advances and ideas noted in the issue include evolution, penicillin, the Internet, regenerative medicine and the transistor.

Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of medicine, chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering. He also is the director of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology.

Ratner is the Lawrence B. Dumas Distinguished University Professor and professor and chair of chemistry in Weinberg. He also is a professor of materials science and engineering and co-director of the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern.

Magazine excerpts:

Nanolithography (1999) [and specifically, Dip Pen Nanolithography, Chad Mirkin]

“Today’s cell phones, computers and GPS systems would not be as compact as they are without the technique known as nanolithography, one branch of the revolutionary science of nanotechnology.

Nanolithography is a way of manipulating matter on the scale of individual atoms in order to create circuit boards for a variety of electronic devices. Through the use of an atomic-force microscope … nanomaterials such as nanocrystals, nanolayers and nanotubes are arranged into structures. Dip pen nanotechnology, developed in 1999 by Chad Mirkin of Northwestern University, has allowed circuit boards to become much smaller. This, in turn, has led to the development of computers so tiny that they could be used in other nanoscale technologies, such as programmable matter.”

Molecular Electronics (1974) [Mark Ratner]

“As its name implies, molecular electronics refers to the use of molecular components to build electronic devices. Since chemists Mark Ratner and Ari Aviram created the first molecular electronic device in 1974 -- a rectifier, which converts alternating current to direct current -- scientists have continued to advance both their understanding of the science and its potential applications.

Many researchers are working to replace semiconductors in all of their applications with molecular electronic switches. Some companies are poised to deliver such switches to computer and electronic-device manufacturers.”

Northwestern is a recognized international leader in nanoscience research and its applications, with the International Institute for Nanotechnology representing and uniting more than $600 million in research, programs and infrastructure. Mirkin and Ratner are founding co-directors of one of the first federally and privately funded nanotechnology facilities of its kind in the nation, the Center for Nanofabrication and Molecular Self-Assembly at Northwestern.