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Explorit: Big excitement about really, really tiny things

By Lisa Justice

Explorit invites you to join us in investigating the most minute aspects of life with NanoDays, a festival of hands-on activities about nanoscience and its potential impacts on our lives. The NanoDays Festival is organized each year by participants in the NanoScale Informal Science Education Network.

From butterfly wings to the graphite in your pencil, nano is all around us. “Nano” means really, really small. So nanoscience is really, really small science, studying the smallest things there are.

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. That’s like comparing the planet Earth to a marble! That’s also the length that your fingernails grow every second.

Nanoparticles and other tiny objects that exist on the nanoscale are too small for us to see with our eyes, but we can witness their effects on our larger world. Many substances like gold and aluminum behave differently when broken down to the nanoscale. The aluminum that your soda can is made of is explosive when broken down into nanoparticles.

Gold also changes its appearance and behavior when it gets really small. The gold that we can see with our eyes is shiny and yellow in color. But at the NanoDays Festival you’ll see gold that is so small that it reacts differently with light and changes its appearance.

What do you think nanogold might look like? Will it still be shiny? What color might it be? Remember, we can’t see nano-sized objects with our eyes. What could we do to be able to see nanogold?

At NanoDays you also can experiment with salt water, static electricity and polymers to observe more changes at the nanolevel and see how other nanoparticles look and act differently than their larger counterparts. You can even recreate the experiment that won a Nobel Prize in physics in 2010!

Researchers Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov developed a technique for making graphene, the thinnest substance on Earth, from the graphite in a pencil and a piece of tape.

What we call pencil lead, the dark center of a pencil that allows us to write, isn’t really lead at all. It’s graphite, a mineral made of lots of layers of graphene stacked on top of each other. Graphene is a thin layer of carbon (only one atom thick!) laid out in a honeycomb pattern.

Geim and Novoselov succeeded in peeling apart the layers of graphite to produce a single layer of graphene. You can, too, at NanoDays, and then use your graphene in an experiment to light a lightbulb.

Explorit, 3141 Fifth St., will host NanoDays April 9-13. Entry is free with paid admission to the “Forces of Nature” exhibit.

Explorit’s coming events:

* Remember to sign up for Explorit Summer Camp online at www.explorit.org.

— Explorit Science Center is at 3141 Fifth St. and open to the public on the first full weekend of every month. For more information, call (530) 756-0191 or visit http://www.explorit.org.

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