What's next for nanotechnology and how a pair of Kentucky universities will be at the forefront

The National Science Foundation recently awarded two Kentucky universities a prestigious grant in nanotechnology. Here's how they're planning to use the money to lead new innovations.

A graduate student at U of L's Micro/Nanotechnology Center cleanroom
Image: Tom Fougerousse

Over the last 20 years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a nationwide network of nanotech researchers­­--the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI). And for 20 years, it's been led by Stanford and Cornell. In 2015, it changed strategy. All universities could compete to be a site, and the NSF selected 16 of the best ones to expand the network.

Kentucky became home to one of the top sites. Kevin Walsh, founding director of the Micro/Nanotechnology Center at the University of Louisville, teamed up with Todd Hastings at the University of Kentucky to win part of an $81 million grant from NSF. The theme for their submission was "Multi-scale Manufacturing and Nano Integration Node (MMNIN)." In other words, said Walsh, their proposal is for the site to "integrate things across the various length scales of manufacturing, from nano-micro to the 3D-printed world."

Over the last 20 years, Walsh said, the state of Kentucky has been investing in advanced manufacturing, with a mix of state and university funding. The EPSCoR program, which stimulates competitive research in traditionally underfunded states, helped Kentucky pump up their infrastructure in advanced manufacturing, both the super small, micro-nano level, as well as 3D printing.

"We're positioned pretty well," said Walsh, "because of the hard work we've been doing for the last 20 years. The timing was right."

The grant brings together eight core facilities--four at each of the universities. At Louisville, in addition to the Micro/Nanotechnology Center, there's the Rapid Prototyping Center, which engages in additive manufacturing and 3D printing, the Conn Center for Renewable Energy, focused on energy and new materials, and the Huson Nanotechnology Core Facility, focused on characterization tools, such as scanning, electron microscopes, and atomic force microscopes. UK has complementary facilities.

The goals of MMNIN are:

1. To be a National Center of Excellence for current and next generation 3D multi-scale manufacturing and integration (3D MSMI)

2. To offer a comprehensive set of fabrication and characterization capabilities spanning nano to meso/macro regimes

3. To provide technical expertise for users to rapidly and efficiently integrate these processes

TechRepublic followed up with Walsh to find out more about what has made Kentucky a top spot for nanotechnology research.

What's special about Kentucky in terms of nanotechnology?

We were unique in that we have a wide breadth of advanced manufacturing capabilities. We have particular expertise in additive manufacturing and 3D printing, and that technology is just exploding. It's beginning to verge with micro-nanotechnology. With 3D printing, you can make things smaller and smaller, with multiple materials. Eventually, you'll be able to 3D print, for example, a bone replacement. You'll also be able to embed tiny micro-sensors in the bone and nano-reservoirs for drugs,. With next-generation additive manufacturing, you'll be able to make complex, smart structures that have all these embedded micro-nano components.

How did the University of Louisville get started in nanotechnology research?

In the early '90s, I started a program here in Louisville, literally, in a closet. We got a huge break in '97 when U of L built a new, interdisciplinary research building with a 1000-square-foot cleaning room. As other people became interested in micro-nanotechnology, the university converted it to a multi-user facility. We soon outgrew that, so the university developed plans for a new interdisciplinary building called the Shumaker Research Building, which they built in 2006. That's when the university decided to really get into this and build a 10,000 square-foot cleanroom facility. So we went from a single faculty member's lab to a true, multi-user, core facility.

Shumaker Research Building is an interdisciplinary research building with a focus on micro-nanotech and houses various disciplines. It's cleanroom facility is used by faculty and researchers in engineering, physics, chemistry, medicine and biology working on micro-nanotechnology.

How is the nanotechnology center used?

The goal of the national network has been to open up nanotechnology to everyone, to make available resources here in a geographically distributed network to all people who are interested in getting involved in that. Researchers from universities that don't have access to facilities; businesses interested in doing this, healthcare-related, consumer electronics, defense related--all those require new, smart materials. Or people from national labs, located close by, who don't have such facilities.

The whole idea to try to make these really expensive facilities more available to the general public. We have 50% internal / 50% external users. The internal users are primarily grad students, typically working on a project with faculty member. It could be funded from NSF, NIH, DOD, NASA, DOE, etc. We also have research engineers and post-docs using the facility, as well as some faculty. Usually the faculty has grad students, post-docs, or research engineers there. The research I currently work on there is defense-related and sensitive. Therefore, it's restricted to using not students, post-docs or research engineers.

The external users are industry. People from all over the US will come to use it.

What background do researchers tend to have?

In most schools, students still get traditional degrees--in physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, material science, or chemical engineering. When they do their research, they'll specialize in nanotechnology. Universities are being conservative before changing curriculum. What you're starting to see is some universities actually offer graduate programs in nanotechnology. You see that more in Europe than in the US. It's like what bioengineering was 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, there weren't many bioengineering degrees. People would get electrical or mechanical engineering and specialize in biomechanical areas. Now it's mainstream. The NSF predicts that by 2020, we will need 2 million people trained in nanotechnology.

What's unique about the University of Louisville?

Our infrastructure around advanced manufacturing [is unique]. A lot of schools have focused purely on nanotechnology. Some focus also on 3D printing and additive manufacturing, but U of L probably has the top combined resources in micro-nano as well as additive 3D printing. My hope is that people will come here because they want to use both, developing products--whether it's artificial implants or next-generation Internet of Things products, or the next-generation Fitbit wearable where the band gets 3D printed, and everything inside it, sensors and electronics are made with micro-nanotechnology. Right now, when someone wants to make a Fitbit, they make up a brand new manufacturing scheme to do that. Do I want to mold it, 3D print it? How do I put all these components together? We want to make this rapid, efficient.

What will you do with the money from the grant?

About two-fifths of our budget will go to purchasing new tools. UK will focus on bottom-up approach, and U of L will focus on top-down. For example, the University of Kentucky plans to acquire Nanoscribe 3D printer that uses the 2 photon process that makes things with feature sizes down to 100 nanometers. That's really small. It's 0.1 microns. A human hair is 100 microns. It's 1/1000th of a human hair. So you make things really small and build up. U of L is focused on top down, not trying to build things from molecular level up, but focusing more on building things by putting materials down in patterning them, as well as some of the more conventional 3D printing.

Two-fifths of our budget will go to hire people, engineers, since we expect 500 additional users at the facility. We need to hire extra personnel to handle the new customers. We're hiring two engineers and UK is hiring two engineers. They'll train people, working with them, helping them come up with a fabrication manufacturing strategy. We've also got to develop a website so users can quickly see what we have and see if we're the right site for them.

The last bit of money goes to developing programs to support the theme--strategies for multi-scale manufacturing and engaging underrepresented populations. That's a big goal of the NSF.

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