By From the Lowell Sun
By Matt Murphy
BOSTON -- A cutting-edge research project at UMass Lowell that uses nanotechnology to develop sensors that can help soldiers detect lethal biological and chemical agents could be in line for a major boost in federal funding from an earmark secured by Sen. John Kerry in the newest defense spending bill.
Kerry and UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan announced yesterday that the Senate defense appropriations committee has approved $4 million in its 2010 budget for the research initiative.
That would be the largest federal subsidy the university has received for this nanotechnology research project since it began receiving federal funding fiscal 2007, thanks in large part to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who made the research a priority.
The House earlier this year approved just $2 million for the project and must reconcile with the Senate.
"We're excited about it, particularly in light of the fact that we're going to break ground in the spring on our new emerging-technology building," Meehan said. "That $4 million will allow us to make an investment in the building and our research-and-development program."
The research now being done at UMass Lowell in coordination with the Army Research Laboratory in Hyattsville, Md., and the Natick Soldier Center is focused on developing two main types of sensors that could be used by soldiers on the battlefield.
One sensor, called the "nanocanary," would be able to detect unspecified biological and chemical threats, while the "nano-skin" detection system could be combined with the chem/bio sensor to detect structural or mechanical damage to body armor, vehicles and weapons.
"Some of our chemical-agent sensors are very close," said professor Joey Mead, a plastics engineer and co-director of the Nanomanufacturing Center. "This $4 million will allow us to purchase the equipment and pay the researchers we need to make this an effective program and do it quicker and most cost-effectively."
Until his death, Kennedy had become a major supporter of the university's research efforts, visiting the campus in the fall of 2006, when he helped secure the first $2 million grant to get the project off the ground.
Since that time, UMass Lowell has received money every year, but the totals have declined, with $1.6 million in federal defense spending going toward the project in fiscal 2008 and $1 million in 2009.
"Traditionally, this was Senator Kennedy's funding request, but I think Senator Kerry is effectively carrying out Senator Kennedy's appropriations and his priorities," said Meehan, who also helped secure the first grant when he was a member of the House of Representatives.
"I've talked to members of this committee, and we will be working as hard as we can to advocate," Meehan said, adding that he believes Kerry and U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas "recognize that nanotech manufacturing will have a profound effect on the economy in our region and of the state."
The full U.S. Senate is expected to finish consideration of the defense spending bill by the end of month, and will then work with the House to agree on a funding number. Officials said nothing is guaranteed, but added that the Senate action is a positive sign.
Kerry credited UMass Lowell with "leading the nanotech revolution."
"Investments in basic research and development in the Merrimack Valley are more important than ever and I will continue working with Chancellor Meehan to ensure the University has the resources it needs to continue developing cutting edge technologies, especially those that help protect our troops," Kerry said in a statement.
UMass Lowell is on track to break ground on its new $70 million Emerging Technology and Innovation Center this spring. The university estimates that up to 300 jobs could be created in the regional economy over the next five years from the research-and-development work being done at the nanotech center.