Campus scientists, led by materials Professor Galen Stucky, are making big steps in the world of the extremely small.

Working with Japan’s Tohoko University, Stucky and his team of UCSB nanotechnology researchers revealed three-dimensional pictures of incredibly small glass “cage” structures only a few atoms in size in the Nov. 23 issue of Nature magazine.

These tiny structures are part of the emerging science of nanotechnology, the custom building of compositions, atom by atom. Scientists predict these newly discovered cages could be used to create devices that would more thoroughly purify groundwater and toxins from some food.

“Atoms are placed exactly where they are needed to produce specific structures,” Stucky, who has worked in the field over 10 years, said.

Scientists are using electron microscopes and other highly sophisticated imaging devices to perform such tasks as constructing semi-conducting gallium phosphide spheres of only 30 atoms.

“It’s a much less wasteful way of manufacturing things in terms of material, energy and space,” Stucky said.

Nanotech engineers apply this technology by trying to make useful devices that reduce the size of electronics and computer chips to the atomic level. These nano-scale devices are also energy efficient since their structures can be carefully engineered at the atomic level for that purpose. This new field of science employs principles of chemistry with engineering.

Researchers at Cornell, Stanford and Rice University are working side by side with UCSB nanotech researchers to develop techniques that would allow scientists to see nano-scale structures in three dimensions, and assemble atomic machines able to build “from the ground up,” Stucky said.

Nanotechnology Magazine Publisher Bill Spence publicly stated recently that nanotech labs are currently capable of producing nano-tubes of “nanometer-sized graphite fibers, and their strength is 100 to 150 times that of steel at less than one-fourth the weight.”

The research supplies chemists and engineers with tools to revolutionize the material sciences, electronics and medicine.

Scientists claim that programmable machines the size of a small molecule will one day be able to repair individual cells from the inside. Steel or other common materials could build themselves through the actions of programmed “self-replicating” nano-machines that continuously bind to one another, rather than the complex multi-step manufacturing processes of today. Nanotechnology could also lead to faster and stronger spacecraft by developing composite materials of very high strength, but low weight.

Nano-scale chemical devices could be used to remove MTBE, a carcinogenic compound, from water and fossil fuel, as well as heavy metals from ground water, or bio-toxins from food. This new window of science is providing scientists with visions of grandeur, and they have barely started to scratch the surface, Cornell University researcher Carlo Montemagno said.

“There is no book to tell how to do this,” he said at last week’s public disclosure of Stucky’s findings.

Like any new technology, Stucky said nanotech still has potential misuses. “What we know through science is great,” Stucky said, “but not nearly close to understanding the relatedness of different parts of systems.”