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Cover Story

April 9, 2007
Volume 85, Number 15
p. 15-21

Building Up Nanotech Research

Investments in centers and institutes underpin interdisciplinary efforts

Ann M. Thayer

When on the campus of any major U.S. research university with a nanotechnology agenda, look up, look around. Don't think small. One of the most tangible results of the billions of dollars being invested in nanotech research is likely to be a building looming in front of you.

Roy Kaltschmidt/Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
Work With Me Here Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Molecular Foundry is one of the most recent user facilities to open.

You might not find nanostructured composites in the concrete, nanoparticle-based solar panels on the roof, or even self-cleaning nanomaterial-coated windows, despite progress in these applications. On campus, you aren't looking at nanostructures, but decidedly macroscale structures.

Since 2001, U.S. government agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) have funded more than 60 facilities, centers, and networks linking existing facilities and activities across university campuses. On top of this are states, universities, and other organizations making considerable like-minded investments. The idea is to create a physical and intellectual infrastructure to advance nanotech research for economic growth and public benefit.

"The infrastructure will be a legacy of NNI," says Celia I. Merzbacher, assistant director for technology R&D in the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). She also serves on the National Science & Technology Council's Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering & Technology, which oversees NNI.

"These centers are more than just bricks and mortar-they help train workers, educate the next generation of researchers, and are a place where university and industry research come together," she explains.

Over the past decade, U.S. agencies together have invested about $6.8 billion in nanotech R&D, or more than a quarter of total government spending worldwide. Under the NNI 2004 strategic plan, creating and maintaining research facilities and instrumentation became one of seven areas of investment. Since 2005, this component has accounted for about 11% of annual spending, or about $160 million in the proposed 2008 NNI budget. Combined federal, state, and local investment in facilities approaches several hundred million dollars per year.


More than 60 centers, networks, and facilities, funded by at least seven agencies reporting under the National Nanotechnology Initiative, are in operation or soon to open. Lead institutions are listed here, although many initiatives, especially the networks, involve multiple university and other sites.

The National Science Foundation and, more recently, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, have been the most active. "Within each of the funding agencies, there is significant effort given to ensure that the activities and research under way in the centers are well-coordinated," says E. Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), which supports interagency activities under NNI.

Teague believes that center and network formation will continue, although probably at a slower rate than in the past. He points to the recent emergence of centers that address legal, ethical, and societal issues surrounding nanotechnology. Old or new, centers often have a different emphasis or expertise to offer, as can be seen, for example, in those at Cornell University, Northwestern University, Rice University, and the University of California, Berkeley. Themes at these facilities range from biotech to materials and from basic research to instrumentation.

Compared with other government R&D initiatives, NNI has a unique interdisciplinary approach, Merzbacher says. "That's why a mechanism of funding larger centers, as opposed to mainly individual investigator grants, has worked very effectively," she says. "It's driven the research community to work in multidisciplinary groups and has had a transforming effect on the way university science is being done."

Even centers set up decades ago in materials science and fabrication have spawned or morphed into new nanotech-focused ones. In 1989, physicist Harold G. Craighead moved from industry to Cornell to head the NSF-backed nanofabrication user facility, which was designed in 1977 around submicrometer work. Today, it is the Cornell NanoScale Science & Technology Facility (CNF), one of 13 NSF nanofabrication user facilities in the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN).

By the mid-1990s, Craighead and others were putting together an original effort around research at the interface between nanoscale structures and biology, believing this was where nanotechnology would offer breakthroughs. In 2000, the Cornell-based consortium formed the Nanobiotechnology Center (NBTC) with a five-year, $19 million government grant as an NSF science and technology center.

"To create something that would have durable impact, we believed we needed a formal center," Craighead says. NBTC is research home to about 50 faculty members and as many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows across different disciplines at six institutions.

State and industry partners also support the center. It is headquartered in Cornell's Duffield Hall, a largely privately funded $100 million nanotechnology research and education building that opened in 2004. The building also houses CNF and parts of the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR), which was set up in 1960.

Although Cornell's centers predate NNI's formation in 2001, they are counted among participating agency centers; NBTC actually starts the NNI timeline of center formation. Cornell later became home to the Center for Nanoscale Systems in Information Technologies, one of six original NSF Nanoscale Science & Engineering Centers (NSECs) funded in 2001.

Cornell faculty, still affiliated with traditional departments, can be members of more than one center, but they avoid duplicating activities under independent center missions, Craighead explains. For its part, NBTC focuses on basic science along with projects to develop tools and technologies. "We try to maintain as long-term a view as possible because that's a challenge in research these days, and we have the opportunity to preserve that view," he says.

With a broad materials focus, about 80% of CCMR's work falls comfortably under a nanotech label, says CCMR director and chemistry professor Melissa A. Hines, and it includes years of instrumentation and nanofabrication technique development. CCMR also offers shared facilities and has educational programs and collaborations with universities, organizations, and companies.

Its annual budget is about $11 million; about a quarter comes from an NSF materials research science and engineering center grant, and it gets support from the Departments of Energy and Education. The center has about 100 members across 13 different departments. In the past year, it supported research projects of 45 researchers.

While CCMR focuses on basic research, the Center for Nanoscale Systems (CNS) develops device applications, such as sensors, electronics, and information storage. It was a CCMR discovery involving the switching of magnetic domains using electric current, a technique with application in memory devices, that helped launch CNS and led to its funding, Hines says.

As is true of most centers around the country, joining one at Cornell often is an informal process, while getting project funding almost always involves an application and review. Research programs are evaluated relative to a center's mission and reviewed internally and externally each year. Major reviews by government agencies for multiyear-funding renewals may take place periodically.

When it comes to research projects, Hines says CCMR tends toward a bottom-up approach, letting researchers propose ideas they believe they should and can tackle. "Faculty come to CCMR not because we have a lot of money, because we don't, but because it's a way to nucleate interdisciplinary projects," she explains.

Likewise, within its guiding principles and structure, NBTC supports activities that can only really be done by multi-investigator collaborations, Craighead adds.

Interdisciplinary research, while potentially rewarding, is not for everyone, center directors say, and the ease or challenges in fostering it differ by institution. The benefits are not only intellectual, but also practical, as research equipment is getting larger and more costly. "It's just not viable anymore that every researcher have all of the toys they need in their own labs," Hines says. "We bring people together to buy the facilities and the instruments needed to do this kind of research."

Cornell has a long history of supporting centers and institutes in many fields, and so interdisciplinary thinking is ingrained in its research culture, those involved say. Departmental structures serve the university's educational mission, while faculty respect and value research outside their own areas. To perpetuate this interdisciplinary culture, Hines believes it's important to involve junior faculty early in their careers in both the structured and casual interactions that can foster collaboration.

And Craighead believes NBTC's most lasting contributions may be in education at the graduate, undergraduate, and K-12 levels. According to NNI, the number of workers needed to fill the ranks of nanotech-related areas will reach 2 million by 2015. Graduates who have worked at NBTC are highly sought after by industry, academia, and government, he adds.

"We've broken any barriers of whether interdisciplinary research of this type can be a successful career path or a successful path for a faculty member to get tenure," he says. "We've gotten beyond the challenge of bringing researchers together and any reluctance by students to consider this a viable direction."

Looking ahead, Craighead and Hines say the challenge for their centers will be to continue to distinguish themselves through quality research and to renew efforts to stay at the forefront of ever more popular and competitive areas of nanotech research.

Although nanotech center initiatives are generally less than 15 years old, the numbers have been exploding. Some estimates place the total, including those under NNI, at more than 120. On an operating and structural level, many have experiences similar to those at Cornell. At the same time, with all the growth has come increased competition for funding, faculty, staff, and students.

New York State and the State University of New York, Albany, have one of the largest programs (C&EN, Jan. 22, page 22). California has a significant effort as well, and other states and universities are following suit. Indiana's Purdue University has opened its $58 million Birck Nanotechnology Center to support 140 faculty members across 27 departments. And Georgia Institute of Technology is constructing its $80 million Marcus Nanotechnology Building.

Stephen Anzaldi/Northwestern University
Home Sweet Home of Northwestern University's Institute for Nanotechnology is in Patrick G. & Shirley W. Ryan Hall.

Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has attracted more than $350 million, primarily federal funding for infrastructure and sponsored research, says chemistry professor Chad A. Mirkin. He directs the International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN), which coordinates all nanotech-related enterprises and projects at the university, as well as its work with the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. The institute involves more than 100 faculty members and a few hundred students and postdocs spread over 15 departments.

Northwestern has another of the original NSECs, its Center for Integrated Nanopatterning & Detection Technologies with partners including the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Developments such as dip-pen nanolithography and medical diagnostic tools are being commercialized through the companies NanoInk and Nanosphere, two of 13 Northwestern spin-off companies formed in recent years.

The university has integrated three existing equipment facilities into the Atomic & Nanoscale Characterization Experimental Center and created a Center for Nanofabrication & Molecular Self-Assembly. IIN and the fabrication facility are housed in a $34 million building that opened in 2002. The university also has grants for nanoscience research applied to supramolecular systems, bioterrorism defense, and transportation.

More recently, Northwestern competed to become one of eight National Cancer Institute Centers for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNE), part of a larger five-year, $144 million NCI program. Separately, NCI's parent, NIH, has plans for eight nanomedicine centers, four of which were awarded in late 2006.

Northwestern's CCNE focuses on nanomaterials for therapeutics and diagnostic tools in collaboration with other universities and corporate partners. The cancer center opens doors on exciting research and offers an opportunity to link with medical schools, Mirkin says. "Chemistry plays a very big role in making new materials, but once you have a potential application, you have to work with the people who are going to use it."

Mirkin believes that Northwestern's success in winning awards stems from having had key players and critical mass in electronics, diagnostics, and other application areas. "We know our strengths, and Northwestern is extremely strong in the 'soft matter' aspects of nanotechnology—using organic materials and biological structures interfaced with traditional hard materials," he says.

It also helped that Northwestern built an infrastructure appropriate for nanoscale R&D before nanotechnology became a major area of federal government support.

"Funding organizations are much more willing to invest in something that has the capabilities to perform and a demonstrated track record of success," Mirkin points out. "You can't practically build a state-of-the-art nanotechnology center at every major research institution in the world. That would be a failed enterprise. You have to make selected bets."

With the funding comes the responsibility "to not squander this but instead take the resources we've been given and try to do something that will really change science." Mirkin anticipates that Northwestern's nanotechnology efforts will evolve further and likely come to include initiatives in energy storage and conversion.

In the meantime, about one-third of its more-than-$40 million annual nanotech budget goes to educational outreach. Activities include museum exhibits, teacher training, continuing education, and even the development of a Boy Scouts badge. In 2005, NSF awarded $15 million for a National Center for Learning & Teaching in Nanoscale Science & Engineering led by Northwestern.

Like Northwestern, Rice University in Houston has an umbrella institute that oversees nanotechnology-related activities. Started in 1993 as the Center for Nanoscale Science & Technology, it was renamed the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science & Technology in late 2005 after Smalley's death. It has about 120 associated faculty members across 16 different departments and is involved with local, state, federal, and international initiatives.

NOTE: For 12 agencies participating in the National Nanotechnology Initiative. SOURCE: NNI
Programs Research facilities will get about 11% of national nanotech funding.

Most of the faculty and the bulk of the money are in various areas of science and engineering, explains Wade Adams, who became institute director in 2002. "But nanotechnology is bigger than science and engineering at Rice," he adds. It also encompasses collaborations with the anthropology, economics, philosophy, and religion departments; the schools for business and public policy; and, down the road, the art and music departments.

"Because we're a small university, we have to pull faculty together from across the campus if we're going to compete," Adams says. About 35% of Rice's nearly $80 million in annual research spending is associated with nanotechnology. Activities are driven by Smalley Institute initiatives and by faculty interests, which have led to the creation of 12 start-up companies in the past eight years.

Smalley's visions for applying nanotechnology to energy and to medicine continue at Rice (C&EN, Oct. 9, 2006, page 13). Directed by chemistry professor James M. Tour and chemical engineering professor Matteo Pasquali, the Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory operates with a nearly $3 million budget under several agency grants. Rice is also part of the Alliance for NanoHealth, a joint effort with Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, and four medical schools within the Texas Medical Center and the greater Houston area.

Nearly 20 Rice faculty members are in the Laboratory for Nanophotonics. The lab has been awarded a $1.9 million NSF Integrative Graduate Education & Research Training grant to support graduate students pursuing research in nanophotonics. Such grants have been awarded in nanotechnology at several universities across the U.S. as a way to support interdisciplinary studies.

Another child of the Smalley Institute is the Center for Biological & Environmental Nanotechnology, funded in 2001 as an NSEC. In 2005, NSF renewed CBEN's grant for a second five years; NSF's plan all along has been to sunset funding for these centers after 10 years. According to OSTP's Merzbacher, however, it's uncertain what will happen at that end point-whether these centers will continue to exist under new funding or be able to recompete for NSF money.

"Every center has a different plan for sustainability," says Vicki L. Colvin, CBEN director and Rice chemistry professor. "Our strategy has been to create or spawn new organizations that would grow and live beyond the center." One is the International Council on Nanotechnology, which has a mission to assess, communicate, and reduce the environmental and health risks of nanotechnology.

"CBEN has been very active in policy and outreach to government, particularly with regard to issues of safety," Colvin says. "It's a mantle we've carried that I'm glad to see we're sharing a little more. There's a lot of very difficult risk communication that has to happen." It's also the type of activity best suited for a center and not an individual investigator, she points out.

"Center money is a very special kind of money that brings added value," Colvin says. To help make the argument that such funding is fruitful, CBEN has set challenging interdisciplinary research objectives. And rather than distributing funds to individuals or groups, it has centralized more than $2 million in spending on 12 collaborative and interrelated projects.

Initially, CBEN's work was exploratory, but it now has set technology-focused goals for 2011. These include developing a nanomaterial-based water purification system and having two nanoscale medical devices in human trials. One device is already in trials, and the water treatment technology is undergoing large-scale testing.

"If you're going to centralize $2.4 million, you'd better have a lot to show for it," Colvin says, "not just that we've generated over 300 peer-reviewed publications."

Back in 1999, when thoughts about CBEN were germinating, the idea of applying nanotechnology in environmental and medical device areas was just emerging. CBEN has been a leader in both fields, Colvin says, and has helped graduate a new generation of uniquely trained environmental engineers. "They're very strong materials chemists," she says, "and having that intersection with environmental engineering may be one of our most lasting contributions."

At Rice, as at most university centers, the outreach and educational efforts are significant. Looking inward toward their own needs, center directors say they generally see a good supply of students and faculty interested in interdisciplinary nanotech research, along with growing competition when it comes to attracting them. Although a handful of universities offer "nanotech degrees," many more do not. Instead, they often allow students to make nanotechnology a focus of their studies, especially at the graduate level.

UC Berkeley has a designated emphasis in nanoscale science and engineering based on courses and seminars for graduate students in any of 11 departments. It also has a $3.2 million IGERT grant in nanoscale synthesis, characterization, and modeling.

While these provide desirable breadth, "the roots are in physics, chemistry, biology, and materials science, and people need to have depth in these disciplines," says mechanical engineering professor Arun Majumdar.

Majumdar heads a multidisciplinary committee that directs the Berkeley Nanosciences & Nanoengineering Institute. BNNI serves to expand and coordinate research, education, and collaborative activities and includes more than 90 faculty members across separate departments. In addition, BNNI is filling seven faculty positions the university has allocated to it.

In its search for interdisciplinary researchers, Majumdar says, BNNI is finding many top-notch people who, because they don't fit traditional departmental roles, might not be considered when individual departments hire. "We can hire the best person, regardless of which department they'll end up in," he says. He points out, however, that the departments themselves still do strategically choose to hire nanoscience researchers.

Several centers are affiliated with BNNI. Two are NSF NSECs: the Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems, which has three additional university partners, and the Center for Scalable & Integrated Nanomanufacturing, which has four partners. There's also a Defense Department-supported multiuniversity nanooptics center called CONSRT and an NIH nanomedicine center with UC San Francisco called the Cell Propulsion Lab. And UC Berkeley, UC Los Angeles, UC Santa Barbara, and Stanford University have launched the Western Institute of Nanoelectronics, which gets about 80% of its funding from industry.

In addition to established laboratory and research resources at UC Berkeley, one of the newest is the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) next door. The $85 million facility is part of DOE's $340 million investment in five national-lab-based user facilities. Open to qualified academic, government, and industrial researchers, these facilities are just getting off the ground; the Foundry opened its doors in late 2006.

Each of the DOE user facilities will have its own personality, in part a reflection of the people and expertise involved, explains Foundry director and UC Berkeley chemistry and molecular and cell biology professor Carolyn R. Bertozzi. For example, five UC Berkeley faculty members, including Bertozzi, and one LBNL staff scientist run the Foundry's six facilities: one each in organic, inorganic, and biological materials, and others for nanofabrication, imaging, and theoretical work.

Users submit proposals requesting access-200 submissions have already come in, Bertozzi says- and, once access is approved, there is no charge for nonproprietary work. Users can work in the facility for a period of time, get training, or collaborate with staff members. Alternatively, Foundry staff may conduct work on a user's behalf by supplying or characterizing materials.

With an annual operating budget of about $17 million, the Foundry has hired 40 people, of whom about half are scientists, and is looking to fill another 15 positions. Doctorate-level staff scientists spend about half their time on user projects and the rest on their own research. Since the Foundry is also a training environment, staff scientists can hire postdocs, work with graduate students, and write grants for outside funding.

Foundry scientists have achieved advances in nanolithographic techniques that seek to make single-digit nanoscale features and spacings possible. There also is an active effort in supramolecular synthesis and one in making, characterizing, and modeling organic-inorganic interfaces of materials. Foundry work has already appeared in about 86 scientific publications, Bertozzi says. "About 52 were user publications and 38 of those had a Foundry staff member as a coauthor.

"DOE wants to see only the highest quality science with respect to our internal research and the user projects we are supporting," Bertozzi continues. "We have to perform and show that we are fulfilling our mission as a first-rate user facility and that users are satisfied."

Bertozzi makes an argument for the efficiencies of scale and the expertise a single, large facility can command. "The bottom line is we are here as a service to all scientists, and we want people to take advantage of what we have to offer," she says. But as the 60 centers and facilities work to prove and sustain themselves, directors are concerned about the direction funding will take, in light of growing interest, increased competition, and declining resources.

How many centers are enough or too much? "Based on what we know, I don't know how you can tell," says Edward K. Moran, director of product innovation at the professional services firm Deloitte & Touche USA. "I know from working with small companies that they are always looking for access to these sorts of facilities," he says. His sense is that the facilities are being made available to such companies but that supply is limited. "So there's demand there that's not being met," he adds.

Moran recently served on a National Academies committee that reviewed NNI. Less than a decade into the initiative, the committee concluded in its September 2006 report, it may be too early to say whether the investment has yielded a return other than the nanotechnology infrastructure itself. Still, although research, development, and education are being conducted, Moran believes more tangible outcomes will be needed to meet NNI's long-term goals for technology transfer and economic growth.

Cover Story

  • Building Up Nanotech Research
  • Investments in centers and institutes underpin interdisciplinary efforts.
  • What Are We Getting For The Money?
  • Assessing a return on investment in nanotechnology proves difficult.
  • Nanoproliferation
  • More than 60 centers, networks, and facilities, funded by at least seven agencies reporting under the National Nanotechnology Initiative, are in operation or soon to open. Lead institutions are listed here, although many initiatives, especially the networks, involve multiple university and other sites.
  • View Image
  • View PDF
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

Cover Story

  • Building Up Nanotech Research
  • Investments in centers and institutes underpin interdisciplinary efforts.
  • What Are We Getting For The Money?
  • Assessing a return on investment in nanotechnology proves difficult.
  • Nanoproliferation
  • More than 60 centers, networks, and facilities, funded by at least seven agencies reporting under the National Nanotechnology Initiative, are in operation or soon to open. Lead institutions are listed here, although many initiatives, especially the networks, involve multiple university and other sites.
  • View Image
  • View PDF

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