New NSF center to study fundamentals of nanostructures, build and test nanodevices

11/08/04

Berkeley - Nanobatteries, nanopumps, nanomotors and a slew of other nanoscale devices - most with parts that move a mere fraction of the width of an atom - are among the promises of a new $11.9 million Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems (COINS) starting up this fall at the University of California, Berkeley.

The center, one of six new Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers funded for five years by the National Science Foundation (NSF), will harness the skills of theoretical and experimental physicists, chemists, biologists and engineers to explore the basic science of nanostructures and then use this knowledge to both create nanoscale building blocks and assemble them into working devices.

The goal is to merge nanotubes and a host of other Tinkertoy-like nanopieces with organic molecules - DNA, proteins or nanomolecular motors - to create sensors or nanomachines small enough to fit on the back of a virus. Each nanoscale building block ranges from a few to hundreds of nanometers across (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, about one thousandth the width of a human hair).

"We can't help getting excited about the richness and diversity of the science involved and the opportunities in coupling this to potential applications and making little devices," said center director Alex Zettl, professor of physics at UC Berkeley. Zettl is at the forefront of research on nanotubes, which are extremely strong strands of pure carbon or boron nitride that can act as electrical conductors or semiconductors, yet also have interesting thermal and mechanical properties. To date, he has created nanobearings from a pair of telescoped nanotubes, a nanomotor with a nanotube as the shaft, and nanotube-based nanotransistors, chemical sensors and electron field emitters for flat panel displays.

"We'll be designing new and modifying existing building blocks to make them accessible to assembling technologies to the point where you could order them like you order lumber at a lumberyard," Zettl said. "This is quite ambitious. There will be a lot of scientific and engineering challenges here."

The advantage of nanoscale devices is not only small size but also small power consumption - the tinier the device, the less energy required to run it. Some of the devices, however, will generate energy, either chemically or mechanically or via light. Many of the building blocks and structures based on them will first be examined theoretically, with only the most promising candidates pursued experimentally.

The group consists of 28 researchers from UC Berkeley, UC Merced, Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology, and includes not only engineers, physicists, chemists and biologists, but an economist. While some of the researchers are synthesizing and characterizing various building blocks, others will integrate them and map out system properties, and still others will develop the tools to manipulate and construct new building blocks and systems. Several researchers will pursue the theoretical basics and limits of new devices. And Brad DeLong, a UC Berkeley professor of economics, will explore the social, ethical, legal and societal issues surrounding nanotechnology in light of historical technology revolutions. He also will encourage conversations between nanoscientists and scholars in the social sciences and humanities.

"What COINS will do is bring together faculty and students who can make nanoscale building blocks, predict and measure their unique properties, and assemble these building blocks into devices and systems. This, in turn, will lead to revolutionary new applications in information technology, energy and healthcare," said UC Berkeley's Tom Kalil, a special assistant to Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau. Kalil helped meld the diverse group of researchers into a coherent center that captured the attention of the NSF.

Researchers in the center will be able to make advantage of the new research facilities that are being created by the two California Institutes for Science and Innovation located at UC Berkeley - the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3).

Some of the researchers and their projects include:

  • Mechanical engineering professor Arun Majumdar has developed arrays of nanoscale cantilevers that flex like diving boards when molecules bind to them. Majumdar, along with Michael Roukes, professor of physics, applied physics and bioengineering at Caltech, and other collaborators will try to turn these into biosensors using lasers to detect the binding of minute quantities of chemicals.

  • Electrical engineering professor Ron Fearing is working with Peidong Yang, associate professor of chemistry, and Thomas Kenny, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford, to create artificial nanohairs that will adhere to surfaces as do the toe hairs of geckos.

  • Carlos Bustamante, professor of physics, and other researchers are trying to convert the chemical energy in twisted DNA into mechanical energy that can crank a nanotube motor. Bustamante is working with physics professors Michael Crommie and Steve Louie; Kyeongjae Cho, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford; and theoretical biologist George Oster, UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology.

  • A team led by Majumdar and Ramamoorthy Ramesh, professor of materials science and engineering and of physics, is studying the movement of fluids on the nanoscale in order to develop a battery. This research also could lead to a novel type of transistor based on nanofluidics.

  • Researchers with the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Sensor, which 18 years ago pioneered microscale devices or MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), are transitioning to the nanoscale with attempts to create devices from nanowires, such as a vibrating resonator. They include Roger Howe and Jeffrey Bokor, professors of electrical engineering and computer science, and Roya Maboudian, associate professor of chemical engineering.

  • Zettl, Bustamante and Maboudian will work with chemistry professors Jean Frechet and Paul Alivisatos, as well as with other collaborators, to camouflage nanomaterials so as to allow the binding of tailored molecules, proteins and other biological molecules. These "functionalized" nanomaterials could mimic large biological molecules in the body.

    A major education and outreach component of the center involves not only undergraduate education at UC Berkeley and UC Merced, but also public outreach through the Lawrence Hall of Science. And decision-makers in Sacramento will be briefed on nanotechnology and other important scientific issues through a new program called "Capitol Science," organized with UC Berkeley's Institute for Governmental Studies.

    A student group, the year-old Berkeley Nanotechnology Club, has even been brought into the center to provide an important point of contact between student entrepreneurs in science, engineering, business and law to encourage technology transfer to the marketplace.

    The club "encourages the formation of teams of science and engineering students with Haas School of Business students to develop business plans around some of the new technologies that will emerge from the new center," Kalil said. He noted that UC Berkeley has already spun off several nanotechnology companies, including Nanomix Inc., Nanosys Inc., Quantum Dot Corp. and Kalinex, Inc.

    Source: Eurekalert & others

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