Panel: Nano effort needs broadening

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  July 23, 2002 at 6:29 PM
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GAITHERSBURG, Md., July 23 (UPI) -- The Department of Energy should do more within its nanotechnology programs to include the science of catalysis, or modifying chemical reactions, the agency's Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee said Tuesday.

Folding catalysis into nanotech, where matter is manipulated at the atomic and molecular level, could lead to great strides in increasing energy efficiency, environmental cleanup and other areas, said John Hemminger, a chemistry professor at the University of California at Irvine, who led a subcommittee discussion on the matter.

DOE should put out a specific call for catalysis-related research proposals, Hemminger told the committee meeting. Graduate students and industrial researchers should be included in the effort, he said.

"The proposals should specifically address their approach to surmounting the significant barriers that often exist in implementing new processes and understanding in the real world," Hemminger said. "That challenge should be handled not by BESAC or people within (DOE), but by the scientific community."

The time is right to include catalysis in nanoscience because of their near-perfect fit, Hemminger said. Theoretical models of nanoscale reactions often handle catalytic situations without the need for much fine-tuning, and catalysis also depends on available surface area, a bountiful resource when nanoparticles are involved.

Committee member Philip Bucksbaum, a physics professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, asked why the subcommittee did not call for a national center for such research. Hemminger replied that the need for widespread, multi-researcher work ruled out a center. Geraldine Richmond, the committee chairwoman and chemistry professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene, said the call should be seen more as a search for new methods of appropriately studying the field.

Given the great many possible research needs at the disciplines' intersection, either BESAC or a DOE group should sponsor a workshop to discuss the matter and compile a comprehensive list of how nanotech tools could be used in this field, said committee member Gabrielle Long, a ceramics scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

BESAC will formalize the research recommendation over the next few months, Richmond said. Catalysis research opportunities also could be discussed in an upcoming workshop on DOE nanoscale science research centers, said Jim Roberto, with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The department's NSRC effort will be officially kicked off at the workshop, Roberto said.

DOE researchers also are working on building a coherent structure for telling the NSRC story, said Terry Michalske, with Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. Agreements on common terminology and Web site creation should be hammered out in a few months, he said.

Most every national lab has proposals for a nanocenter, but Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, N.Y., was the first to win approval last month.

Brookhaven's Center for Functional Nanomaterials will work with industry and academic researchers to understand better the physical, chemical and magnetic properties of materials at the atomic scale, as well as determine what applications these nanomaterials can provide. One of the lab's existing research tools, the National Synchrotron Light Source, will be particularly useful as it generates intense X-rays that let scientists examine nanostructures as they develop.

The $70-million-to-$85-million project, slated to begin in fiscal year 2004, will be open to any researcher on a peer-reviewed basis. Construction plans call for a laboratory and office building with the type of ultra-clean production and analysis rooms found in computer ship plants. The project also will expand the lab's electron microscopy facility and the NSLS.

Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois has devoted more than $300,000 in initial planning efforts for its center, which would focus on nanoscale electromechanical devices and high-speed nanotech manufacturing methods.

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