Tiny Materials, Big Ambitions

May 17, 2011

Dr. Veena Misra
Dr. Veena Misra

Dr. Veena Misra wants the laptop you buy five years from now to bear little resemblance to the one you have now. It should be many times faster, much more powerful and allow you to do things you've never dreamed of doing on your current machine.

Like dozens of other researchers at NC State, Misra is using nanotechnology - in which researchers manipulate the properties of the tiniest of materials - to make those advances happen.

"We want to demonstrate nanotechnology in a real device that can make a difference," said Misra, professor of electrical and computer engineering. "We can take nano fundamentals and apply them to real world applications."

Today you can find dozens of NC State engineers interacting with each other and with researchers across campus as part of the NC State Nanotechnology Initiative, a university-wide effort established in 2006. The initiative focuses on nanotechnology research, outreach and education and seeks to foster inter-disciplinary research and infrastructure; expand academic programs and educational impact in the field; and support nanotechnology-focused collaborations within the university and with local industry.

Nanotechnology focuses on the fabrication and manipulation of materials and devices with dimensions less than 100 nanometers; for perspective, the head of a pin is about 1 million nanometers wide. When these tiny materials and structures are altered and controlled, they exhibit unique properties not found in larger-scale systems. For example, aluminum, a normally stable material, becomes combustible on the "nanoscale."  And copper, an opaque substance, becomes transparent.

Such changes can lead to the creation and improvement of devices, products and materials that we use every day. NC State engineers have made key advances in this area, including developing new approaches for adding antimicrobial properties to microneedles, tiny needles that hold great promise for use in portable medical devices; developing an inexpensive treatment process using a nanoscale film that significantly lessens odors from poultry rendering operations; and creating a "smart coating" that helps surgical implants bond more closely with bone and ward off infection.

These results have gained NC State national recognition as a nanotechnology leader. In 2009, Small Times ranked NC State among its top 10 US academic institutions in nano commercialization and research. In addition, Raleigh was one of the top five cities designated as a "nano metro" cluster by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

And Dr. Jagdish "Jay" Narayan, the John C.C. Fan Family Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, recently received the Acta Materialia Gold Medal and Prize for accomplishments in the field, which include creating materials that could allow a fingernail-size computer chip to store the equivalent of 250 million pages of text.

Researchers at NC State have been conducting world-class nanotechnology research for more than two decades, but in many cases, groups working in different disciplines weren't aware of what their NC State peers were doing. In the early 2000s, campus leaders began a push toward forming an umbrella nanotechnology group that would promote collaboration among nanotechnology researchers on campus and develop interaction opportunities for researchers interested in emerging nanotechnology fields, such as nanobiotechnology and nanotoxicology. That work spawned what became the Nanotechnology Initiative.

"People were thinking that nanotechnology had potential in a lot of different fields, so we wanted to have some way to help faculty on campus communicate about research that they're doing," said Dr. Gregory Parsons, director of the initiative and Alcoa Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

These tiny coated carbon microposts created by Dr. Anatoli Melechko in materials science and engineering and Dr. Gregory Parsons in chemical and biomolecular engineering could one day help in solar energy collection and utilization.
These tiny coated carbon microposts created by Dr. Anatoli Melechko in materials science and engineering and Dr. Gregory Parsons in chemical and biomolecular engineering could one day help in solar energy collection and utilization.

Today, the initiative includes researchers from nine NC State colleges, including many from the College of Engineering. These engineers realize the importance of collaboration, especially regarding research proposals to funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

"In order to successfully get funded these days, proposals must be cross-disciplinary in nature and bring together scientists from different disciplines in order to effectively address the challenges," Misra said.

Among Misra's collaborative projects is an effort to use magnetic nanowires to decrease the power dissipation per chip, increase the number of transistors and improve the speed of electronic devices.

Silicon is the transistor material most frequently used in devices such as laptops, PCs and cell phones, but researchers appear to have hit a wall. Silicon is reaching its limit to be scaled down and is losing its ability to uphold Moore's Law, a technology rule of thumb holding that the number of transistors that can be squeezed into a computer chip doubles every 18 months. This pace of progress can't be sustained unless researchers work with new materials on the very small scale.

"We need alternative routes to continue the progress in electronic improvement, performance and power," said Misra. "We don't know what that answer is going to be, but there are many approaches being pursued and several of us at NC State are pursuing several promising pathways."

Others are also using the team approach. Dr. Nancy Monteiro-Riviere, professor of investigative dermatology and toxicology at NC State, assesses the safety and health effects of nanomaterials in everything from sunscreens to medical devices. She is working with NC State industrial and systems engineers to try to determine whether silver-coated prosthetic devices will release ions to kill bacteria and eliminate infection - an existing problem among prosthetic implants.

Dr. Jon-Paul Maria, professor of materials science and engineering, is working with Dr. Michael Dickey, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to use nano-enhanced solar cells to develop automatic charging stations for soldiers' computers, night-vision displays and GPS devices. Instead of carrying additional batteries, soldiers can use the stations to recharge the batteries and decrease their loads.

More collaborations have come as a result of NC State nanotechnology forums, which are held regularly on campus. Researchers from across campus are invited to give short presentations on their current research. The forums help researchers learn what colleagues in related fields are doing.

For example, Parsons' collaboration with Dr. James Bonner, associate professor of toxicology at NC State, began shortly after he met Bonner at the first nanotechnology forum. Bonner was studying the potential health effects of nanotubes, which can be found in a variety of products including computer screens, heat-resistant cookware and prescription medication containers.

To learn more, Parsons suggested using his thin-film coating methods to change the surface structure of nanotubes and see if that might affect their toxicity level. The two researchers wrote a proposal and received funding from the National Institutes of Health. Today, they are one of the only groups in the country looking at how to modify nanotubes to affect and mitigate their toxicity, which could help make nanomanufacturing plants and resulting products safer.

Dr. Orlin Velev, INVISTA Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, also attributes some of his recent research successes to the initiative.

"The initiative has helped us find a way to speak with each other and collaborate," he said. "We want to know about each other's research, establish contacts, discuss experimental capabilities and start collaborative projects."

Velev recently led a team of researchers that showed how water-gel-based solar devices - "artificial leaves" - can function like solar cells to produce electricity. The findings proved the concept for making solar cells that more closely mimic nature. They also have the potential to be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than the current standard-bearer: silicon-based solar cells.

The work in Velev's group was funded through a grant from the US Department of Energy to investigate nanoscale processes for renewable energy. The grant project, developed and managed by the initiative, currently supports facilities and five research groups led by Velev, Dickey, Parsons, Misra and Dr. Christopher Gorman, professor of organic and materials chemistry.

"The discussions with our colleagues, the funding and the equipment have allowed us to finish our work and get published," Velev said. "Cooperating with other people and using shared facilities helped our work a lot."

NC State researchers see more opportunities for partnerships. Last year, they were awarded 25 nano- and micro-technology patents.

"Some of our own folks have gone on to create startup companies that create jobs," Misra said. "I think it just goes to show how important it is to continue our nanotechnology efforts to help the economy of North Carolina. There are a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurship in this area, so we need to continue to build that."

Parsons, who serves as co-chair of the research and scholarship division on Chancellor Randy Woodson's Strategic Planning Committee, hopes to see the Nanotechnology Initiative keep evolving positively as the new chancellor continues to roll out his vision for the university.

"I'm an alumnus, and I'm proud of what we're doing," Parsons said. "Keep your eyes on NC State. We're not waiting around; we're pushing forward."

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