In a winter of seemingly endless snow and ice, what if there were a better way of fortifying roads against potholes?

What if this same technology could be used to build stronger bridges, create solar panels, even penetrate and selectively kill cancer cells?

They’re called nanocrystals — particles so small that their width measures about 1/80,000 of the diameter of a single strand of hair. And they are so light and so strong that NASA once said they theoretically could be used to build an elevator to the moon.

“The excitement to me was that they could be made out of almost anything,” said Thomas Webster, chairman of Northeastern University’s Department of Chemical Engineering, “and by shrinking that thing down in size, you could change its properties.”

One way to do this is to start with the material in its normal form and evaporate it into individual atoms by heating it, Webster said. The degree of heat necessary depends on the material and can range from about 100 degrees to melt a polymer such as Tupperware, to as much as 9,000 degrees to melt metal. Then the atoms are collected on a cold surface, where they condense and form nanocrystals.