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NMSU researchers developing ultra-thin, electronic 'nano skin'

Picture this: a television with a screen that is so thin, flexible and portable that you can hang it on the wall or hold it in your lap, watch a program, then roll it up and take it with you when you leave. The day's newspaper could be a single sheet of electronic paper that displays pages, one-by-one, as you scroll through. A stack of self-stick notes could be replaced by one note, which could be electronically updated over and over again with new tasks or reminders, rather than being thrown away.

New Mexico State University graduate student Jamal Talla, left, and Seamus Curran, an assistant professor of physics, discuss research in nanotechnology. (NMSU photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

The building blocks for these and other potential applications are based on "nano skin," an ultra-thin array of nanotubes encased in a flexible polymer film that is being developed by a group of researchers from New Mexico State University and other institutions.

In nanotechnology, the science of building materials one atom at a time, nanotubes are tiny elongated cylindrical carbon structures consisting of hexagonal graphite molecules attached at the edges.

Seamus Curran, an assistant professor of physics and an adjunct faculty member in chemical engineering at NMSU, came up with the idea to create nano skin about three years ago when he was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York

"I had a thought, even at that stage, that it might be possible, by using composite formation, to make an effective field emission device," Curran said. "I didn't expect it to be as great a success as it actually was. I thought it was going to work, but I didn't think it was going to work great."

Curran and Aditya Avadhanula, a graduate student in chemical engineering at NMSU who just accepted a position with Micron after completion of his master's thesis with Curran, worked with scientists at Rensselaer and Northwestern University to turn the idea into reality. Their results were published in the journal Nano Letters in March.

"The current configuration we came up with is very different from what everyone else is working on," Curran said. "While my thoughts were three years old, fortunately this is one of those rare occasions where people in the research world just did not see where I wanted to go with this."

The technology has many advantages. Nanotubes can be set up in any configuration, which is retained after the polymer is added. The nano skin is flexible while maintaining the ability to conduct electricity, and holds up well to being stretched or compressed.

Nano skin could be used to measure stress in a building, by being imbedded in a wall or other structural element to sense any movement or imperfections. The material could be used as a gas sensor or as a field emission device for a flexible, flat panel display. Curran said his group's nano skin technique provides the highest field emission intensity when compared with any other nanotube system.

"I think in terms of potential application, it is incredibly important, very significant," Curran said. "It's very significant for the field of nanotubes because it brings nanotubes one step closer to application. I think it's very important technologically because you're now looking at a flat panel display potentially."

Curran's next step is to look at channeling emissions and the use of color, which will require some imaginative thought.

"There are some physics to be sorted out in my head first before I can actually build it. So I have to reason it out for myself, where to go next," he said.

The project was partially supported by the Department of Defense, which funded Curran's Agile Response Coatings research project with a grant of $1.5 million in 2004. In that collaboration of NMSU, Wake Forest University and the University of Florida, scientists worked to develop high-tech coatings that would allow stealthy military aircraft to change colors. Other researchers were supported in the nano skin research by the National Science Foundation.

Curran hopes this and other developments help attract more funding to the physics department at NMSU.

"Unfortunately for us here at NMSU, we don't have the traditional facilities built up over a decade that are required to build these things," Curran said. As a result, NMSU researchers must do a significant amount of the work elsewhere and they must rely on the good collaborations developed through personal friendships with researchers at other universities that do have the needed facilities. Avadhanula, for example, spent most of last summer at Rensselaer growing nanotubes for their project.

"We just don't have the history and funding," Curran said. "That takes years of buildup. We can go so far with some of the equipment and facilities that we've got right now, but only so far. What we need is a significant investment in terms of equipment and infrastructure to be able to continue to compete on the world stage."