Grants boost nanotech efforts

09/15/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By Bridget Scrimenti
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- The technology touches all industries, ranging from new kinds of toothpaste to stronger plastic bottles and health care.

Now, researchers at University of Massachusetts Lowell are using nanotechnology to detect structural damage in bridges, chemical agents, and to pinpoint explosives.

"We want to improve our ability to detect internal damage," said Julie Chen, co-director of the Nanomanufacturing Center and a professor of mechanical engineering.

Chen and 14 other researchers recently landed more than $2.7 million in grants from the National Science Foundation in July and August. Three of the five projects expand UMass Lowell's research in nanotechnology, while the money also supports an after-school program for Lowell middle schools.

"Just as nanotechnology is shaping the world's future, these grants are shaping the future of UMass Lowell," Chancellor Marty Meehan said.

The university is expected to announce a site for a new nano- and biomanufacturing research center within the next week. The $80 million project will be called the Emerging Technology and Innovation Center.

"We're at the forefront of nanotechnology research that bodes well for the future of the university and the area," said state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell.

Nanotechnology -- the science of building new materials atom by atom -- is expected to drive economic development and create jobs for the region.

"The research is focused on technologies that have a high likelihood of commercialism -- technology that will create manufacturing jobs," Meehan said.

During the past year, UMass Lowell has received $51.5 million in federal research funds.

A U.S. Senate appropriation bill for military defense includes $2 million for nanotechnology research at UMass Lowell. The money was backed by Sen. Edward Kennedy. The bill hasn't reached the Senate floor yet, according to Kennedy's office.

While nanotechnology becomes a buzz word for the area, UMass Lowell also is focusing on science education in Lowell middle schools. The new program, "The Science of Small Things," received about $756,000 from the National Science Foundation.

The program will partner with the Citizen Schools after-school program at the Robinson and Wang middle schools. Raytheon and Nypro also are partners.

"We want to expose children to career opportunities and show them what it's really like to work in nanotechnology," said Shawn Barry, program manager for "The Science of Small Things."

Chen said she hopes companies will relocate to Greater Lowell to access industry expertise and a trained workforce.

"The bigger goal is to have an economic impact on the region," Chen said. "If there are no jobs -- there's no where for our students to go after they graduate."