ASEE Prism Magazine  - November 2002
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All Things Great & Small

- By Pierre Home-Douglas

After realizing the incredible potential of nanotechnology, University of Toronto engineering professor Doug Perovic turned the study of this emerging field into an undergraduate major.

One of the next big revolutions in science and technology—some say the biggest since the Industrial Revolution—could be based on something very, very small. And Doug Perovic, former competitive hurdler, race car driver, and professor on the faculty of applied science and engineering at University of Toronto, wants his students to play their part in its realization.

Perovic has helped set up an undergraduate program at U of T dedicated to nanotechnology, the study of the world at the scale of one billionth of a meter—a nanometer. How small is that? Think: the width of seven hydrogen atoms—or a millionth of the size of the head of a pin.

Nanotechnology is one of the hottest buzzwords in research today. Its proponents say that the field is at a similar developmental level now that computers were back in the 1950s, including changes that will occur in the next few decades that would confound the most prescient science fiction writer and transform society in ways as yet unimaginable. There is talk of programming nanorobots to perform surgery, repair the thinning ozone layer, manufacture food and eliminate famine, create smart machines that can fix themselves, paint computer screens on a wall, and produce new resources that will make oil obsolete.

In fact, the word seems so all-inclusive that it is hard for many people to know what is nano and what isn't. After all, everything has a nanoscale to it - everything is built of atoms and molecules. But true nanotechnology, as Perovic points out, is research that is designed to create a property or behavior that would not exist on a larger-size scale. Perovic points at a block of concrete. "This is a nanoscale material when you break it down, but its mechanical behavior is not governed at a nanoscale. It's more a micro- or macro-scale product. Now if someone could take concrete and do something to its intrinsic structure that not only gives you a material with the structural characteristics that we know of in concrete but also, say, emits a signal that tells you it is overstressed—that would be fantastic." Perovic admits that is certainly not possible now based on what we know about concrete, but it's an example of what nanotechnologists are attempting to do: rearranging atoms or, more efficiently, coaxing them to assemble themselves to produce products with revolutionary properties, like materials with 10 times the strength of steel and only a fraction of its weight and devices the size of sugar cubes that will be able to store the contents of the Library of Congress.

Perovic dates his interest in science to a time long before the word nanotechnology was coined. "As a kid, I must admit I was always interested in the natural world," Perovic recalls. "I collected insects and put them into jars and watched them fight it out and see what would happen," he says with a mischievous smile. In high school in the Toronto suburb of East York he gravitated to physics. "It was nice to work in a field where you can reduce things to simple, fundamental laws, a field that doesn't demand a lot of memory work."

But Perovic was far from being just an academic star. He was also a gifted athlete who played basketball, captained the high school football team, and had his sights set clearly on competing in the 110-meter hurdles in the 1984 Olympics until a cheap shot during a punt return blew out his knee. His mother cushioned the blow by reminding him of the old Chinese saying that "every crisis is an opportunity." Perovic focused on his academic studies and zeroed in on a career in science. It was a lot easier studying without jammed fingers and busted ribs," he recalls.

After a year in the physics department at the University of Toronto in the early ‘80s, Perovic switched to the school's materials science and engineering department, drawn by the interdisciplinary approach of a field that mixes physics, chemistry, and even biology. "I thought it would be the right place to go at the time," he recalls, "and boy, did I make the right decision, because that's exactly what nanotechnology has become—the convergence of the basic sciences.

He polished off his Ph.D. in a year and a half—six months less than U of T's minimum residence requirement. He started work at Canada's National Research Council and then returned two years later to the day he started his doctorate to defend his thesis on nanostructures in films made of silicon and germanium. Perovic points out that back in the mid- 80s, the research community realized that mixing silicon—the backbone of the electronics industry—with germanium in ultra-thin layers (four to five atoms wide) opened up a whole series of new potential properties. That included the "holy grail" in the semi-conductor field: getting light, rather than just heat, from silicon. "That was exciting because it was the early days of engineering at the nanoscale based on how atoms were connected."

He then moved on to Cambridge University's renowned Cavendish Laboratory to continue his research. Not only did the experience give him the chance to work with two of his idols in the field of electron microscopy, Archie Howie and Mick Brown, it also placed him in a world redolent with the history of cutting-edge science. "You'd walk through the halls of this low-key, unpretentious lab and you'd see the original equipment of towering figures in the history of science like James Maxwell, J.J. Thomson, and Earnest Rutherford just sitting there in glass cases," he says, his voice tinged with awe. "Any place else that stuff would be in a museum. And then you see displays of 18 Nobel Prizes that were won by people working at the Cavendish and you realize that this is where they discovered the electron, the atom, the nucleus, the neutron, the structure of DNA, X-Ray diffraction, and on and on. It blows your mind."

The Beginning

After his two-year stint at the Cavendish, Perovic returned to U of T. In 1997, at the age of 35, he became the head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the youngest department chair at the university. Perovic also worked with U of T's vice president of research, Heather Munroe-Blum, developing a university-wide series of partnerships in nano-technology to increase grants and encourage spin-off companies and other commercial opportunities. Then he had what might be classified as a pedagogical epiphany. "I thought, ‘We should be doing something like this same type of partnership on the education front.' I realized we have all the ingredients for such a program—a fantastic collection of departments necessary to make it happen."

Perovic drew up a curriculum based on existing courses and developed several new courses of his own. In 2001, the department began offering a nanoengineering program at the undergraduate level. Students in the engineering science division of the engineering faculty spend the first two years taking a wide range of courses including math, physics, and computing. They can then choose the nanoengineering specialization in their final two years.

U of T's nanoengineering program is fed by seven departments of the university: physics and chemistry, as well as five engineering divisions- materials science, mechanical, chemical, computer and electrical, and biomedical and biomaterials, the last of which provides a link with the nearby medical faculty and neighboring teaching hospitals. Perovic, who chairs the program in addition to his other duties, says that the physical proximity of all the various departments and institutes makes it easier to foster the interdisciplinary link that is central to a field that depends upon a convergence and synthesis of different disciplines. "Having some of the world's top people in chemistry, physics, biomed, and material sciences near each other and all working in the same direction was a key ingredient in helping us to do this quickly and well."

He said he was a little nervous about the difficulty of the program he put together. "The third year—the first year of the nanoengineering specialization—is quite intense, with courses in electrical engineering systems, hard-core organic chemistry, hard-core inorganic chemistry, hard-core quantum mechanics, etc." It turns out he didn't have to worry. "They are fantastic students—people often accomplished in other areas like music and the arts. A lot of them don't have to work night and day either. They depress the hell out of me," he chuckles.

In the summer, students intern at local nanotechnology-driven companies and in the biomedical field, where Perovic says some of the most exciting work in nanotechnology is going on. He points to recent nanotechnology solutions used in the field of cancer therapy, including a molecule made from 60 atoms of carbon—a soccer-ball-shaped structure called a Buckey ball after geodesic dome pioneer Buckminster Fuller. Antibodies that can attack cancer cells are attached onto the C-60 molecule, which is then used as a vehicle to transport the antibodies through the bloodstream to a specific site. "These are like smart bombs," says Perovic. "Send them in, deploy them, and you have a very localized delivery of the antibody to wipe out a tumor without ravaging all the other good cells in the area as you do with radiation and chemotherapy."

Perovic says he sees his role as making these accomplishments better known—not just in the scientific and engineering community but to the general public as well. "We have to contribute to the field while putting down any of the hype about it—and there's a lot out there. The accomplishments are not celebrated, nowhere nearly enough."

Those accomplishments, Perovic fully believes, will build from a trickle into a tidal wave and prove truly revolutionary. "In the last Industrial Revolution we learned how to make machines and manufacture materials like steel using a nonscientific heat-it-and-beat-it approach. Now, we're repeating the whole thing, learning how to manufacture, but doing it on the nanoscale. We can see what we're doing, know what we're doing, and we can orchestrate what we achieve. It's exciting to be working in the field on the cusp of a new age."


Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.
He can be reached at