The Virginia Science Festival, Blacksburg: Nanotechnology with fun!

About the author: Rui Filipe Serra Maia is a PhD student in Geosciences at Virginia Tech. Check out his profile on the VTSuN student page.


Do you think nanotechnology is so complicated that only scientists can use it? If so, you probably did not visit the VTSuN booth at the Virginia Science Festival in Blacksburg this year! If that is your case…


Despite a discouraging weather, on September 26th, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. parents and students engaged in a world of hands-on experiences and interactive demonstrations capable of inspiring wonder in science across all ages. Learning and joy emanated from our booth attracting the attention of hundreds of kids and their families throughout the day. Suddenly nanoscience was no longer a complex word, but rather a fun and puzzling topic.

From little amazed kids to intrigued grandparents, nobody could resist to the surprise of the unwettable “magic” pants that would have been very handy in the heavy rain outside. Their nanosized “waxy bumps” are totally imperceptible to our touch, but create a super hydrophobic surface that water is not able to soak, forming floating drops, incapable to make them wet.

And remember, not only could nanotechnology save you from getting wet under rain, it could also save you from getting that embarrassing stain when you spill coffee or tea over you in your first date!


But if you think this was all, you better keep reading.

Have you ever stuck a magnet to a piece of iron? Probably yes, but have you ever seen a magnetic fluid? A fluid that you can move freely and create funny shapes simply by bringing one or more magnets to its surroundings? Most of our visitors had not. Suddenly a small test tube and a simple magnet became the most entertaining toy for kids and grown ups. Nanoparticles of ferryhydrate, a ferromagnetic material, were dispersed in a solution immiscible with water to create a “ferrofluid” that moves under the influence of the magnet.

High school students play with the properties of the ferrofluid in a test tube and in the dollar bill.

Figure 1. High school students play with the properties of the ferrofluid in a test tube and in the dollar bill.

But do you think that these ferrofluids are too cool and only used in high tech materials accessible to no more than scientists? Well, believe it or not, most likely you use this technology everyday. At home or in your work, find a very strong magnet, and put it close to the dark print in your dollar bills. It is not a magic trick… it is nanotechnology. The ink used in the print is a ferrofluid, and with it the thin dollar bill becomes magnetic. You might not believe but this property is used in vending machines to distinguish the value of the bill. Very handy uh?


Throughout that day, we fostered curiosity in nanoscience using these and many other fun and interactive demonstrations. I could describe them all here and talk about several unique stories that we had with our visitors. But just like a book, if you know the story, it is not as exciting to read it. Therefore, I invite you to visit our booth in one of our next outreach events such as the National Science Festival in DC next spring and discover the odd but interesting properties of the nano world.

More photos from that great day:


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