The classical definition of mechanical engineering is the discipline, the science and technology that are required to create mechanical devices, most often those that move themselves or other things. For instance, mechanical engineers design and build mechanical systems that include parts of airplanes, parts of automobiles, and even parts of satellites and spacecraft.
My work, as a mechanical engineering researcher, is to generate the knowledge that is required to build machines and their parts on a small scale, that is, of a size that is approaching the molecular scale. I want to be able to engineer these small-scale machines so that they may be used to move other smaller parts around. For instance, we want to be able to engineer nanomechanisms, nanoactuators and nanosensors;and these machines will all depend upon some sort of nanoscale mechanical device.
Most of mechanical engineering for the last 100 years or so, has dealt with creating machines that were large enough so that we could handle them with our hands. In the last 20 to 30 years engineers have started building devices that are small enough so that one cannot use their hands to handle or operate them, but yet the machines may still be observed via a magnifying glass. When we discuss mechanical engineering in a nanotechnology context we are talking about building machines out of individual atoms, individual molecules, or groups of molecules. The machines I am working on are so small that one cannot see them with a high-powered optical microscope.
There is a great deal of research that must be done before one can engineer nanoscale machines. For instance, we need to understand how to put them together. Once you've made them, how do you take measurements so that you know if they are the right size? How do you measure their motions so that you know if they are moving in the right way? Then, after that, how do you take what you have made and turn it into products that people would use in their everyday lives? As engineers, we do these things with large-scale machines every day and we don't think twice about how to do them. We know how to do this from past experience. At the nanoscale, we struggle to conceive of methods we could use to do the same types of things.
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