NY national lab aids nanotech research

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  March 8, 2002 at 4:37 PM
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UPTON, N.Y., March 8 (UPI) -- The Brookhaven Center for Functional Nanomaterials, a just-opened section of the Department of Energy's national laboratory in Upton, will help refine researchers' understanding of nanoscience, scientists said Friday.

The field deals with manipulating matter at the nanometer scale -- a nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles, scientists say.

The "Nanocenter" will work with industry and academic researchers to better understand the physical, chemical and magnetic properties of materials at that scale, as well as determine what applications these nanomaterials can provide.

Randy Issac, a researcher at IBM's nearby T.J. Watson research center, told a workshop at the lab one of its existing research tools, the National Synchrotron Light Source, will be particularly useful. The NSLS's ability to generate intense X-rays will let scientists examine nanostructures as they develop, he said. Having a mix of private and public scientists involved also will be beneficial, he said.

"It helps to understand the constraints involved in bringing something to market," Issac said. "One of the best ways to understand the constraints of the real world is to partner with the industrial labs, who've hit their heads against the real world several times."

Venkatesh Narayanamurti, a leader of the nanoscience effort at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., also said research has to have a connection to the real world. No single branch of science has cornered the market on nanotechnology -- physics, mathematics and chemistry are all effective pathways into the field, he said.

"Those who'll be successful (in nanotechnology), even in biology, are those who'll take a more holistic view; go from the small to the world of the large," Narayanamurti told the workshop.

That sort of approach was evident in a presentation by Tom Russell, a polymer chemist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Much of today's nanotech work uses the inorganic processes involved in making computer chips, but Russell showed how the nano-sized molecules of organic polymers, or plastics, could possibly help deal with assembling nanostructures.

Current attempts to create regular arrays of nanoholes or pillars require several complicated steps involving etching and depositing layers of metal. Russell said a fluid containing unmixable polymers could eliminate several steps. The fluid could be placed on a metal surface and spun into a layer a few nanometers thick; heating the mixture would create the desired pattern, and exposing the layer to ultraviolet light would dissolve one polymer, leaving a nanometer-scale lattice for either creating holes or pillars, he said.

Even though nanoscience has nearly unlimited possibilities, researchers must resist calls to examine all areas at once, Narayanamurti said. Keeping some level of focus in both their work and the assembling of their support teams could be the difference between "generating random noise and conducting a symphony," he said.

Conversely, the government needs to understand attempts to over-consolidate research could hurt the quest for knowledge, he said.

The Bush administration's 2003 budget request wants to put $679 million into the ongoing National Nanotechnology Initiative. As one of about a dozen labs nationwide, the Brookhaven Nanocenter is expected to get $55 million over the next five years. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, told the workshop Congress would support continued nanoscience funding.

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