18 April 2016

Is the nanorevolution at the door? Maybe. Researcher Konrad Schönborn is working on developing visual worlds that will get the general public and school students to understand the risks and advantages of technology.

Nanoparticles can be found in thousands of products such as bedclothes, sunscreen, paint and lubricants. The nanoworld is all around us, created by both humanity and nature. For example, butterflies have nanostructures in their shiny wings, and snails in their mother-of-pearl shells. Nanotechnology has always existed, but humanity hasn’t learned to use it until now. Some people therefore argue that we stand before a nanorevolution.

“When I ask school students what nano is, the answer is often ‘something really small’. We want to deepen that knowledge. This generation will have nanotechnology in their everyday lives; they are the ones who will be working with this technology,” says Konrad Schönborn, researcher at Linköping University’s Department of Science and Technology.

The students are right that nano is something inconceivably small. The work comes from the Greek nanos, which means dwarf. But understanding exactly how small is difficult. That’s what Mr Schönborn wants to change. Together with his colleagues Gunnar Höst and Karljohan Lundin Palmerius, he is researching how nanoscience can be made accessible to school students – and the solution is spelled ‘visualisation’.

Holding on to one millionth of a millimeter

Mr Schönborn’s office sits at the top of Visualisation Centre C, a Science Center, in the middle of Norrköping. He and his colleagues have good opportunities here to test their visualisation ideas on visitors and school classes.

What the trio has done is to develop a virtual reality where you can grasp at nanotubes with your hands, as if they were in front of you. A nanotube is a large carbon molecule that is similar in appearance to rolled-up chicken wire. The difference is that their size is measured in millionths of millimeters. But through the experience of grabbing at and moving magnified nanotubes in virtual reality, the students gain an understanding of what they are and what they could be used for.

“The students stand in front of a 3D TV with 3D glasses on, and they can see both themselves and the nanotubes. Through different scenarios, they can then grab the nanotubes and get a feeling for whether the tubes are attracted to each other, or if they react differently. Our research has shown that through using the body together with the system, the students get the feeling that they actually are grabbing hold of nanotubes. This increases understanding of how these tiny little particles react,” Mr Schönborn says.

One of the scenarios deals with how nanotechnology can be used in treating cancer. On the 3D TV in front of them, students can see what happens when tubes modified to become “target seeking” gradually accumulate on a cancer cell.

“Nanoparticles in medicine could be a tremendously large area of use. During radiation therapy, for example, it can be directed using the particles so that only the cancer tumor is treated, thereby avoiding other injuries,” Mr Schönborn says.

Challenges and risks

One of the reasons why bringing nanoscience to schools is important, according to Mr Schönborn, is that nanosociety is already here – and that requires knowledge so that students can learn to see both the potential in nanotechnology and its risks. For not everything is positive. Nanotechnology may offer solutions out of science fiction, but there is also a downside. In the future, it looks like the technology can be successfully used in medicine, but in experiments on mice nanotubes also caused lung damage, like asbestos does.

“The students need what we call ‘nano literacy’ – sufficient understanding in order to be able to take a position on the use of nanotechnology and its role in society.”

In the United States, the subject is on the schedule in certain elementary schools. Getting nanotechnology into Swedish education, however, could be a challenge,” Mr Schönborn believes. He argues that a good way for teachers to bring nanotechnology in is to bring out its many connections within biology, chemistry, and physics, but it could be a challenge for the teachers who need to familiarise themselves in a partially new field.

“Research has shown that it could be difficult for teachers to communicate the relative size of the nano scale, and that the laws of physics express themselves differently in the nanoworld compared with our experience in everyday life. But that is where our research with visualisation comes in to help.”

In a well-reputed periodical

The scientific publication Nano Today has published the article by Schönborn, Höst and Lundin Palmerius on nano-education in schools – something that is extremely unusual. It is rare that purely physics, chemistry, and biology periodicals are willing to take in articles that concern education about the subject the scientific periodical deals with. Instead, this type of article is usually referred to periodicals in didactics – which few natural scientists read.

“Nano Today initially refused. But after we published in an educational sciences periodical first, they changed their mind. I think the publication indicates the importance in our subject. Now it’s just a question of getting it onto the schedule too,” says Mr Schönborn, laughing.

Picture: In the researchers’ virtual reality system, the user experiences a simulated nanoworld, interacting via hand gestures with carbon nanotubes floating in front of the screen. Pictured is researcher Karljohan Lundin Palmerius. Photo: Thor Balkhed

Watch a video clip on grabbing hold of nanotubes:

Nano education with interactive visualization, Konrad Schönborn, Gunnar Höst and Karljohan Lundin (2016), Nano Today, doi:10.1016/j.nantod.2015.10.006