Nanotech initiative's focus: Measurement

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Feb. 10, 2002 at 2:13 PM
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ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 8 (UPI) -- The Bush administration's fiscal 2003 budget request wants to bet big -- $679 million big -- on nanotechnology, the most miniscule of applications.

This is the science of manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular level, usually measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter. As the National Science Foundation likes to put it, a nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles.

Science can already mass-produce computer chips with features tens of times larger, but only with certain materials such as silicon. Many of nanotechology possibilities lie in the biological realm, NSF Director Rita Colwell has said.

"Viewing cells as computational devices will help enable the design of next-generation computers that feature self-organization, self-repair and adaptive characteristics seen in biological systems," Colwell said in announcing the agency's budget request.

Nanotech also holds great promise in other areas, including pharmaceuticals and stronger materials and fabrics. The United States has been pursuing the National Nanotechnology Initiative since 2001, and the White House wants to boost NNI funding by 17 percent for next year.

Almost a third of the '03 NNI budget, $221 million, would go to the NSF. The money, primarily in the mathematics/physical sciences and engineering disciplines, would support about 15 research and education centers currently being started with some of this year's $198 million in funding.

Mihail "Mike" Roco is a senior NSF advisor on nanotechnology. Before coming to the agency, he held mechanical engineering professorships at several universities, including Johns Hopkins and the California Institute of Technology. He sat down with United Press International at NSF's Arlington headquarters to discuss the agency's NNI efforts.

Q. Nanotechnology is becoming more familiar to many people, largely through nanomaterials, integrating nanoscale objects into existing materials. The NSF research looks beyond that; what's the focus for the longer-term work?

A. At the NSF, we include participation from six directorates, that in one way or another reflect our areas of focus. We have not only nanomaterials and nanoelectronics, but we also cover biophenomena, engineering systems, geosciences and societal implications. This reflects, in a way, that nanoscale science and engineering will affect society at large. It's basically a foundation on which industry eventually will change its business; it's a way in which maybe we'll change our understanding of the world, even of life.

NSF will have an important role because the focus at this moment is understanding this phenomenon, and using concepts from different fields (of science) in other fields. NSF will help, starting next year, three new areas of focus. One area will be to transform manufacturing to the nanoscale in the most efficient way for producing goods; for this purpose we will focus on basic science to build on. The second area will be research for using nanostructures as sensors for biodetection, biocontamination as it relates to national security. Thirdly, we will be developing new instrumentation for the developing field; this will be a special area of focus in 2003.

In the long term, NSF will try to address the educational aspects that are critical for this whole enterprise. In 2003, we'll train and educate about 5,000 students and faculty; this is probably a small number if you consider the rate of increase of nanoscale science and engineering. In 10 or 15 years, we'll need in the range of 800,000 nanotechnology workers, so the NSF will focus on preparing this workforce of the future.

Q. When we speak of instrumentation, one of the issues that comes up regularly when we start talking of biologically based nanostructures and nanomaterials is that current instruments most effective at that scale tend to kill the structures we're looking at. If you use an electron microscope to study a protein molecule, it's never going to "work" again. What sorts of approaches might NSF look at in terms of finding a way to examine, perhaps manipulate these structures at that scale without leading to destructive testing?

A. You raise a very good point related to the fact that we don't look just to improve the existing instrumentation, but to develop new ideas. At this moment, we measure only a very few things; we can measure (atomic structures) in one dimension. We can't measure the chemical composition; we can't measure the local electric or magnetic fields with nanometer accuracy. The focus will be on new concepts that will allow measurements, including of biosystems.

Already, we have several projects ongoing to adapt existing instruments for hard surfaces to soft surfaces. Starting with an atomic force microscope, for example, to measure the flow inside of a cell, or detecting in situs the chemical composition of the contents of a cell. However, these methods are relatively new, compared to (what we do with) inert materials, and this is an area for growth in the next few years. This involves a lot of development because the principles are different, but there's also a lot of potential from the point of view of synergies with the work of the National Institutes of Health. NIH has a large volume of activity, but most of it's done in the empirical, "trial and error" method. New tools will change, qualitatively, the way to do business.

Q. Of the three areas of focus, it would seem the NSF is best positioned to put most of its emphasis on the instrumentation side of things. It's a bit of a truism that the more accurate your measurements are, the better your science becomes overall. Is it reasonable to think the major emphasis of the NSF's work will be in that area, or will it be more equal?

A. Three-quarters of our work will try to cover all the foundations; basically, we're looking for the best idea and synergies from among the fields. Most of the support will continue to go into all the fields based on peer-reviewed competition. In fact, in our announcements, which are NSF-wide, any idea, no matter how different or even if there's no existing program, will have a chance. I mentioned the three areas because we try to encourage researchers in areas where there's a need that's not covered at the moment. It doesn't mean we'll fund only those areas. It means we'll give a little bit higher chance of success to projects (in those areas), but we'll continue to maintain a broad view.

Q. Industry is taking more and more notice of the field, and devoting more and more of its resources to the area. How will NSF's nanoscale work, and its efforts to increase stipends for students to continue this kind of work, help to maintain an appropriate balance between publicly funded and privately funded research?

A. NSF is looking mainly at long-term work, and we have this special role in education and training. This component is essential for industrial development for two reasons. First of all, we need to create the (worker) base. Secondly, in nanotechnology, it's a very close relationship between science and technology, you almost can't separate them. The NSF will continue to have a role after commercialization starts because of this strong interdependence.

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