Study: Manufacturing is nano's greatest need

02/04/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By TOM SPOTH
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- Using impossibly tiny materials to solve difficult technological problems is nanotechnology's bread and butter.

But the advancements spawned in a laboratory won't amount to a hill of beans unless they can make the leap into the real world. That's the message researchers are taking away from a new UMass Lowell study, in which executives from companies involved in nanotechnology cited high-volume manufacturing as far and away the greatest need in the field.

"There's a very strong message in there that indicates the nation needs to invest in technologies and equipment that allows for ... production of nano-based products," said Edward March, UMass Lowell's "executive in residence." March was part of the UML team that developed the survey, which was conducted along with Small Times magazine.

Of the 407 respondents, spanning many different industries, 39 percent said high-volume manufacturing was the most important component of nanotechnology research and development in the U.S. "Basic long-term research" was second at 15 percent.

Rick Hess, president of Lowell-based Konarka Technologies, said research and manufacturing should go hand in hand.

"You obviously have to do both," Hess said. "You can't stop the research, but at some point you need to get the technology into the market and prove its viability."

Konarka, founded in 2001 after an incubation period at UML, is still developing its flagship product, a photovoltaic material called Power Plastic. The product can be integrated into rooftops, windows, and even clothing to generate solar power. Hess said Konarka has been working for more than a year with a German company to find a way to manufacture Power Plastic. Konarka expects to start releasing the product sometime in 2008.

Nanomanufacturing is a difficult process, Hess said, and it's hard to accurately reproduce large amounts of the tiny materials.

"Nailing that process down to produce a high-quality product is where the work is," Hess said. "I think we've come a long way with that."

March said Konarka is well ahead of many nanotech firms, some of which are almost 10 years away from commercialization. UML is planning an $80 million bio- and nanomanufacturing center that could help those companies bring their products to market, and establish Massachusetts as a leader in the field, he said.

The survey results reinforced the university's view that the center will be crucial to the region's economic development.

"It was extremely encouraging," March said. "We (may) even concentrate our efforts more on developing manufacturing technologies and on product realization."

UML has already established several labs scattered around campus to start the work, which will eventually be expanded when the center is built.

Hess said Konarka and other companies will benefit significantly from partnerships with UML.

"There's a lot of great research going on at universities and companies," he said. "There's a lot of ... exciting stuff out there."