UML wins grant to turn nano into big business

08/06/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By MICHAEL LAFLEUR
Sun Staff

LOWELL - The key to actually making money in nanotechnology, says UMass Lowell Chancellor William Hogan, is figuring out how to manufacture the infinitesimally small "nano" objects and materials on a massive scale.

A five-year, $12.4 million grant awarded yesterday by the National Science Foundation will allow researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, in partnership with colleagues at Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire, to examine exactly that.

"This really is the engineering side of nano, and that's where our strength is," Hogan said. "It really is the age-old pursuit of making materials behave the way you need them to in order to support the technology of the time."

State university systems in California, New York and Texas, among others, already have invested millions of dollars pioneering novel applications for nanotechnology, which refers to the size one-thousandth the diameter of a human hair of the things created, with ramifications for everything from pharmaceuticals to cellular phones.

But, Hogan contends, few in academia have actually studied how to get those products to market, even though industry experts predict that the global market for nanotechnology could reach $1 trillion by 2015.

The NSF grant will establish a Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing, which will not have one physical location, but rather encompass numerous laboratories and research efforts at all three partner universities.

For Hogan and other backers of nanomanufacturing research, the key benefit to this region is that UMass Lowell will be pioneering the new industrial processes, equipment and instrumentation required to produce, package and sell nano items. Nanotechnology firms that want early access to those tools will likely be tempted to locate nearby.

"You're taking the research and actually developing the manufacturing processes used by the industry, which is where the jobs are going to be," said state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat and champion of UMass Lowell's nano research.

"It certainly gives our area and our region a primary position to acquire those new jobs," he said.

UNH researchers will use chemistry, physics and materials science "to literally develop the science of nanomanufacturing," said Glen Miller, a UNH chemistry professor and the lead grant researcher there.

Miller and his UNH colleagues will create "nanotemplates," tiny devices that will direct the self-assembly of "nanoelements, the things that everybody's excited about in this field," Miller said.

Researchers at Northeastern and UMass Lowell will put those nanotemplates into production, with UMass Lowell professors Joey Mead and Carol Barry, co-directors of the UMass Lowell Nanotechnology Manufacturing Center, and their team concentrating on the manufacture of plastic and composite nano materials.

The team at Northeastern, the lead institution on the grant, will assess any defects or other quality control problems that pop up during the nanomanufacturing process.

All the researchers involved will have unique problems to overcome in designing ways to mass-produce objects whose building blocks are the size of atoms or molecules.

"Think about if you have a speck of dust, which is trivial when you're preparing something like a car if a speck of dust were to fall on a car bumper," Miller said. "In our templates, a speck of dust is considerably larger than the actual nano-elements we're trying to assemble. If it were to land on the template, it would just wreak havoc on everything."

When it comes to the actual production, Mead said, there are no clear indications of what to expect.

"It's a rate effect," she said. "Things behave differently when you start doing things at high rates. If you think about manufacturing, there's all different types of technology that have to come into play. There's plenty of work to do here."

Michael Lafleur's e-mail address is mlafleur@lowellsun.com .