Researchers 'Think Small' at UH Lab

uh clean roomA long glass window separates visitors from what's probably the cleanest room in Houston. Inside, technicians are dressed head-to-toe in paper suits in a totally sterile environment. They're using highly specialized equipment to do research on a scale that's thousands of times smaller than the size of a human hair. Even a tiny speck of dust could ruin an experiment.

"At this scale, one can enable new functionalities that are not possible to achieve when you make things bigger. The materials properties change at the nano scale, the physics change, the chemistry changes."

Nanofabrication Facility Director Dr. Dmitri Litvinov says researchers use the lab for nanotechnology projects they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. Litvinov cites as an example magnetic biosensors that can be used in early cancer detection.

"Ultimately it will be a very inexpensive tool that can be put into any doctor's office, and with a small sample of blood, you might be able to detect — the goal is to detect the cancer before it actually becomes a real threat to life."

The facility's clean room is the only one of its kind in the region. It's not only used for academic research. Litvinov says it's also available to private industry.

"Potentially some new start-ups could start in Houston that would otherwise not be able to start up because there is a facility where they can outsource their research and development efforts."

The University of Houston says funded research projects supported by the nanotech facility total in the millions of dollars.

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