If you get them going, the University of Maryland academics who are devoting their days to nanotechnology research will spout off dozens of ways their chosen field could someday change the world.
Drug delivery will be accurate enough to target specific proteins within cells.
Solar panels will be powerful enough to replace fossil fuels as our primary energy source.
Chemical sensors will be small enough and cheap enough to be scattered in public spaces, detecting toxins before any damage is done.
Eventually, they say, we'll all be using a new class of super-strength materials as siding for our homes, protection for our cars and even our clothing.
Some of those innovations are a long way off, of course, but the field is advancing rapidly, and the university is making it a priority to be at the forefront of nanotechnology research. Earlier this year, U-Md. was named the No. 1 school in the country for both nanotech education and nanotech research by Small Times, an industry journal. And at the end of May, it launched the Maryland Center for Integrated Nano Science and Engineering to pull together all of the school's nanotechnology resources.
Nanotechnology, generally defined as a science based on the manipulation of the smallest components of things, is projected to become a $1 trillion industry by 2015. For a frame of reference, a human hair is tens of thousands of times wider than a nanometer -- the field's basic unit of measurement.
Some U-Md. professors have been working on nanotech research for a decade or more. But despite sharing the same campus, few of them knew each other or collaborated on projects. A bioscience professor trying to develop a material that would encase nano-size drugs, for instance, had never met a physics professor working on nanotechnology materials that could be used in electronics.
A study conducted by the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute last year found that $30 million in research was going on at the university, scattered across several departments.
"It became clear to us that nanoscience was not a discipline that fit neatly into any one college," said Patrick G. O'Shea, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who helped create the center, which is a joint initiative of U-Md.'s School of Engineering, its College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences and its Life Sciences Department.
Two floors of the newly constructed engineering building -- named after local telecom entrepreneur Jeong H. Kim -- are designed for nanotechnology research. The building will house a clean room the size of a basketball court and a lab built to resist even the slightest vibrations -- like those caused by a passing car -- that could disrupt nano-scale research.
In one nanotech lab last week, electrical engineering professor Reza Ghodssi and a dozen graduate research assistants showed off their arduous -- and tiny -- undertakings. Thumbtacked to a wall was a photocopy of the school's mascot, the Terrapin, alongside a human hair -- the students had shrunk the Terp to the point that it barely doubled the width of the hair. A Petri dish in a back room contains the fruits of a joint project with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Together the two schools are trying to replicate the basic design of a jet engine in a button-sized battery that would lighten the load of soldiers in the field.
Larry Sita, a chemical and biological engineering professor, said the biggest benefit of having his lab wrapped into the nanotech center is that he and students are now collaborating with scientists from other departments, giving them access to a new set of experts and broadening the scope of their research projects.
Last year at this time, Steve Cooper was one of the most powerful men in the local technology industry. After a speech at a government technology trade show, entrepreneurs lined up by the dozens to slip Cooper -- the first chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security -- a business card.
When he decided to leave the agency this spring, Cooper could have walked into any number of high-paying private-sector gigs with companies trying to get the inside track with the DHS. Instead, he signed on to become the top technology official at the American Red Cross. Why?
"The playful answer is that working in the federal government so messed up my mind that I had to go to a halfway house before I went back to the private sector," Cooper said. "The real reason was that there were things that I felt I could continue to do from an environment like the Red Cross. . . . Public service is of high value to me. It's something that I committed to doing after 9/11."
Cooper, 54, whose resume includes stints at CACI International Inc. and Computer Sciences Corp., also said he didn't want to tip the scales in favor of any one company.
At DHS, Cooper melded the computer systems of 22 individual agencies into one and helped the agency design a technology strategy. He says he'll look back on his 21/2 years there with pride and frustration -- and the sense that "this is a marvelous experience and I wouldn't trade it for the world, but I might not do it again."
"Within an hour's drive of Fairfax County, there are about one-quarter of all Internet service providers on the entire planet . . . but the current Internet -- and the protocols and networks that underpin it -- may have reached its limits," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) at a congressional hearing last week on the transition to a new version of the Internet. Proponents of the new standard, called Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPV6), say it is more secure and can better handle increasing volumes of Web addresses than the current version.
Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every Thursday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.