Online Extra: Nanotech: Big Concept on Campus
A hot wind is blowing through the University of Texas's Austin campus. It flutters and tears Professor Paul Barbara's massive blueprints every time he tries to open them up. But Barbara is a professor with a mission. He finally locates a sheltered nook and opens the design for the new $35 million Center for Nano & Molecular Science & Technology he will lead. "We break ground in November," he says.
Nanotechnology is the engineering of microscopic materials, but there's nothing small about its impact on universities. Huge nano centers are opening up across the country. Northwestern, Purdue, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State, and the University of Albany have all recently opened spanking-new nano centers. "It's a booming business for architects," Barbara says.
If universities are gaga for nano, it's not hard to see why. It starts with money. The federal government has earmarked $3.7 billion for nano research over the next four years. State governments -- eager to host the industries of the future -- are joining the rush. New York has allocated $800 million to the nanotech corridor taking shape around the University of Albany.
Why such a buzz over these microscopic bits? It has lots to do with regional-development strategy. Nanotechnology involves nothing less than reengineering, at the atomic level, much of the physical world. Nano will be nearly everywhere. Within the next decade, researchers working at this minute scale are likely to come up with new medicines, new therapies, paints, cosmetics, tiny solar panels, computer chips.
"A RACE GOING ON."
If it's made of atoms, there's a good chance that nanotechnologists will have their atomic-force microscopes all over it, tweaking, redesigning, customizing. Moreover, the states are betting that industries, from energy to health care, are a lot more likely to set up shop near a hub creating these miracle materials. "A lot of states feel like they don't want to be left behind at the station," says Jerry Keys, a patent lawyer and co-chairman of the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor. "There's a race going on now."
At the center of those hubs are universities. They play a far more vital role in nanotechnology than they did for the Internet. Why? For nano, with its roots in deep-material science, researchers stick close to the universities, using their multimillion-dollar labs. A good atomic-force microscope can cost $750,000. A university can help filing patents, too. During the Internet boom, by contrast, software grad students who dropped out by the hundreds could launch startups with a few computers and phone lines.
Nano also requires a far more diverse effort than the Net. Wander around the vast University of Texas, and you quickly see that nano research spreads into practically every realm of physical science. At the electrical engineering school, researchers are using nano particles in their attempts to create the next generation of computer chips and flash memory. Chemists are creating new sources of light from silicon nanocrystals. Pharmacists are breaking down medicines into nano particles that are far more easily absorbed.
Others are working on devices, enabled by engineering at the nano scale, which could provide quick blood scans for HIV/AIDS patients. Walk down the hall, and the researchers are experimenting with microscopic particles of silver, which may eventually be deployed to kill bacteria within the body.
Similar broad-based mobilization around nano is taking place at great research universities around the world. And the process could leave these institutions much-changed.
That's because much of the progress in nanotechnology comes from cross-fertilization. Chemists must work with physicists. When they want to target a nanomedicine with a scrap of DNA, they call in the biologists. Reengineering matter requires team play -- which promises to undermine academia's rigid fiefdoms.
Holding his blueprint flat, Professor Barbara points to the largest room in the new nano center. It's an area called the forum, where scientists from all areas will be invited to congregate. Barbara has read that James Watson and Francis Crick, the men who cracked the DNA code, met over afternoon teas at Cambridge University in the late '50s. He's hoping that his forum will spark similar magical encounters.
"This will be the most important room on the whole campus," he says. If it draws all of the university's nano scientists, it'll also be the most crowded.
By Stephen Baker in New York