Mark A. Reed and his Yale colleagues have fashioned nano-wires one millionth of the diameter of a human hair, which hold the promise of hand-held medical scanners that can do blood work and find cancer cells in minutes.
Reed’s nanotechnology laboratory has also fabricated the world’s smallest transistor, a six-atom ring between two gold electrodes. When translated into practical devices, miniature supercomputers made with molecule-sized transistors could stay cool by using less energy.
At the University of Connecticut at Storrs, Fotis Papadimitrakopoulos is trying to coax molecules to reap solar energy by employing a process that green plants have been using for eons.
Reed’s and Papadimitrakopoulos’s universities are knee-deep in the world of nanotechnology, which has the potential to revolutionize electronics, energy production, pharmaceuticals, the ways diseases are diagnosed, communication.
Connecticut’s government wanted to jump into the nano quest with the two universities as way to boost the economy, and give the researchers needed new equipment. But, unlike some other states, it has pulled back before starting.
Nanotech involves manipulating particles as small as molecules. At that size, some materials take on new properties which manufacturers find compelling. Nanoparticles can become ultra-strong or more conducive or even change color. Nanotech is used in products from sunscreen to steel alloys. Nanoparticles’ size gives them enormous potential for delivering pharmaceuticals in a highly specific way, for example killing cancerous cells but avoiding the surrounding healthy cells.
The Rell administration announced it would launch a $10 million project in conjunction with Yale and UConn researchers like Reed and Papadimitrakopoulos to encourage the growth of nanotechnology research, development, and jobs. The public-private project would create two state-of-the-art Connecticut Centers for Nanoscale Science to be housed at the universities. It would also, advocates claimed, create 31,000 new jobs in the state.
But the money was never spent, and now appears as good as gone. It vanished from the 2008 budget, and is not in this year’s biennial spending plan. It blamed the state budget deficit and a teetering national economy. For now, then, a study commissioned to pave the way for the center will instead gather dust that you don’t need a microscope to see.
The researchers in the labs say they could the help the project would bring.
Yale and UConn are relatively well equipped with instruments, but researchers at both hubs say they need more powerful microscopes to work on ever-smaller nanotechnologies. This apparatus is expensive, which is why state policymakers proposed spending $5 million in the 2008 to establish the nanotechnology center.
The universities would have each put up $2.5 million under the plan, for a total of $10 million – “chump change” in the words of as a member of Connecticut’s moribund Nanotechnology Council.
In return, each campus would have received an electron microscope powerful enough to resolve single atoms.
Yale and UConn will instead either use what they have, travel to a small number of centers, or apply for highly competitive grants from a national nanotechnology initiative started by President Bill Clinton and continued by President Obama.
The Department of Energy, Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and National Institutes of Health, and dozens of other federal agencies distribute these grants.
“The money would have been used for a transmission electron microscope. It’s absolutely vital,” said Reed, professor of engineering and applied science, and associate director of Yale’s Institute for Nanoscience and Quantum Engineering.
Yale has many scanning and transmission electron microscopes, he said, but they are outdated. That means a scientist in Reed’s lab has to go to a different state to conduct experiments with small arrays of molecules.
“That’s inefficient and slow,” he said.
Inefficient and slow are both anathema to nanotechnology research. That’s where Connecticut is now.
“Years ago, consultants did a report on Connecticut’s potential for developing nanotechnology,” said Samuel Brauer, a principal of Nanotech Plus consultants in Stamford and a member of the Connecticut Advisory Council on Nanotechnology.
The Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, delivered a detailed report. No one’s quite sure where it is, now.
The potential is there for more nanotechnology research and development in the state, Brauer said, but small companies cannot afford scanning or transmission electron microscopes.
“Yale is not as state of the art as Harvard or Cornell,” he added.
As for the elimination of the state’s promised $10 million, he said, “I don’t understand it. It doesn’t make sense to me. This $10 million happened before the economy collapsed. When we got it in the budget we expected it to get through,” he said. “Nanotechnology will have a broad impact. One-third of the computer chips we use could not be made without nanotechnology.”
Silicon wafers are polished using nano-particles in a process called planarization. The cosmetics industry also uses nano-particles in products such as sunscreen. (While the products are envisioned to reap economic benefits, their potential health hazards to both workers and consumers remains largely untested and unregulated.)
Meanwhile, China is purchasing scanning and transmission electron microscopes, Brauer said.
Rob Keating, director of workforce development in the state Office for Workforce Competitiveness, said the goal of the 2008 bill was to purchase instruments for Yale and UConn. Yale’s nanotechnology research is geared toward biology, while UConn’s concentrates on materials science. Each campus would have received slightly different apparatus. After the initial $10 million outlay, the state and universities would have contributed an additional $20 million over the next five years.
“Nanotechnology is 21st century technology,’ Keating said. “That’s where manufacturing will go. You need to spend money to make money. The new budget was issued last week and it did not contain nanotechnology. We tried to jump start that in 2008. My hope is that we’ll get back to that.”
Officials and legislators agreed when the bill to create the center first came up in 2008. Gov. Rell’s higher ed and economic development departments testified in favor of it. So did then-House Speaker Jim Amann. Economic Development chief Joan McDonald told a legislative committee that “nanotechnology should be a priority for state economic development.”
Click here to read minutes from that legislative hearing.
Fotis Papadimitrakopoulos, associate director of the Institute for Material Science at UConn, like Mark Reed of Yale, testified in favor of the 2008 bill.
“It would have been a joint center with the University of Connecticut and Yale. We wanted one good instrument at UConn, with technicians to maintain it, and one good instrument at Yale,” he said.
UConn planned for a scanning electron microscope with aberration correction lenses, as recommended by Battelle.
“Everything was going so well and then the collapse happened,” Papadimitrakopoulos said. “Then a number of key people decided to take early retirement. It was a ‘perfect storm’” of shaky finances, he said.
Why the need for such expensive equipment? Used and refurbished scanning electron microscopes from the mid-1990s cost about $90,000 to $650,000 on the open market.
The reason this equipment is so important, Papadimitrakopoulos, said, is that you need to see what you are doing.
A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. A single sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. A blonde hair is about 50 nanometers in diameter. A molecule of DNA is about 2.5 nanometers in diameter.
“Nanotechnology has advanced to the level of crystal lattices. If you want to see the position of a defect, you need to scan the lattice,” he said.
A scientist might want to find defects so that they can be eliminated. Sometimes, the defects themselves are of interest.
“You put atoms in rows and then a detector can find the defect. Then you have molecular control over where you put the atoms,” Papadimitrakopoulos, said.
“There are three or four instruments in the U.S. that can do this,” he said.
One is at Cornell University. Another is located at Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago. Traveling to Chicago to conduct as experiment is time-consuming and tedious, he said.
“It would be nice to have hubs. Without these kinds of instruments it makes us less competitive than other states,” Papadimitrakopoulos said.
The microscope works by using electron waves, which are more powerful and have much higher resolution than light. The electron beam is one-tenth the size of an atom.
Remember, however, that an atom consists of a nucleus and a cloud of electrons. To experiment with devices that use one electron, the microscope has to be even more powerful.
“Atoms are spinning electrons, so they interact with electrons. The atoms must be pinned using a quantum dot, nano-tube or nano-wire,” he noted.
Currently, UConn has a scanning electron microscope with a resolution of about 0.2 nanometers. Each atom is about 0.1 nanometers wide.
The latest scanning electron microscopes can see down to 0.07 nanometers.
“That’s what we want to get. If you look at atoms with a 0.2 nanometer microscope you cannot resolve them,” Papadimitrakopoulos said.
With the sharper model and aberration correcting lenses, scientists are able to obtain images of single atoms, he said.
“We’re concerned about collections of atoms that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Such an array could use sunlight to perform artificial photosynthesis. Other applications include improved batteries and computers, Papadimitrakopoulos said.
Connecticut researchers will sorely miss the phantom $10 million and the instruments it could have provided, said Harris Marcus, director of the Institute of Material Science at UConn.
“Researchers adapt the best they can. It’s very difficult to get multi-million dollar grants. Money from the state would have been more effective,” he said. “Undoubtedly we’d be better off.”
That leaves the National Nanotechnology Initiative, with about $1.6 billion within 13 federal agencies. It was started in 2001.
Grants tend to go to centers that have established track records, Marcus said.
Although UConn and Yale both have world-class nanotechnology staffs, 100 universities could vie for one grant, tough competition from places like Harvard, MIT, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon.
“The idea was to make it easier for small companies to get access to specialized equipment. How to begin to fabricate and manufacture nanotechnology products for Connecticut’s economic growth,” said Stephen Andrade, senior research scientist at Battelle.
“The Connecticut initiative was intended to leverage private money with state money to invest, to engage more people in projects,”
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