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The next big small thing

By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online. By Ethan Forman

LOWELL- For years, nanotechnology -- the practice of making tiny products from molecules and atoms -- has been the stuff of futurists and science fiction writers.

But now, companies in our own back yard are using the process to make computer components, medical treatments and even athletic shoes.

"Nanotechnology really means designing a material from molecule up, from atom up," said Ross Haghighat, chairman and CEO of Triton Systems Inc. of Chelmsford, which perfected the helium cushioning system North Andover-based Converse uses in its new basketball shoe, the All Star He:01.

Nanotechnology combines electrical engineering, biotechnology, chemistry and physics and operates at the smallest scale imagineable. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, the diameter of about 10 atoms.

Triton's subsidiary, Triton BioSystems, also developed a cancer treatment using cancer-fighting beads -- each 80,000 times smaller than the tip of a hair strand -- that would latch on to the tumor and kill it.

The focus for those concerned about the economy North of Boston is to find ways to make nanotechnology the region's next big thing. Scientists see tremendous potential in the field.

University of Massachusetts Chancellor William Hogan wants to position the Merrimack Valley as a nanotechnology manufacturing center, given the region's reputation as a high-tech incubator.

His goal is not to conduct pure research, but to pioneer new ways to better make things at nano level and to allow startup companies to grow.

The university, whose researchers already have expertise in materials and plastics, has partnered with Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire to capture money from the National Science Foundation to create a nanotechnology center, Hogan said.

"Can a good group of universities take the research and convert it to a commercial product made right here, not overseas, not in Silicon Valley, but right here in the Merrimack Valley?" Hogan asked.

UMass Lowell will spend $2 million on nanotechnology, Hogan said, and he hoped National Science Foundation money in the Bush budget would flow his way.

Others are more cautious because the industry as yet has no track record.

The field is new, no business has yet figured out how to make money from it, and the work force needs upgraded training to work for a nanotechnology firm.

"This is a real early stage," said Tom Hubbard, vice president at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, an economic development agency focused on renewable energy and innovation.

"There is a very small number of firms out there that define themselves as a nanotechology company," Hubbard said, putting that number at about 20 in Massachusetts.

Greg Schmergel, 35, of Newton is president of Woburn-based Nantero, a 20-person company that is creating a new kind of memory chip using nanotubes of carbon 100,000 times smaller than human hair just one atom thick. The goal is to provide permanent computer memory that does not need power to store data. The company has attracted $16.5 million in venture capital spending so far.

The type of manufacturing skills that nanotechnology companies will demand will be a cut above what workers at Raytheon and Lucent Technologies now require, said Schmergel. Workers will have to be expert in more than one field of science because nanotechnology encompasses so many disciplines.

"In our company, we have people in chemistry, electrical-mechanical engineering, physics, vacuum science." Many employees know more than one field.

Nantero's company has a prototype of a sort of memory chip that one day could find its way into most computers and laptops.

"Having a chip (made of nanotubes) would make it instant on because the memory would not lose its data when you turn the power off."

Schmergel said creating a nanotechnology center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell will give the state a boost. It's already ahead of most other areas in the country in terms of training, networking and expertise." (The center) will focus on creating a work force that is very advanced and very knowledge intensive that cannot be easily outsourced to another country," he said.

At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, professor Stephen McCarthy, the director of the Institute for Plastics Innovation, has worked to create self-assembling hollow spheres just 50 nanometers in diameter that can hold insulin, allowing a diabetic to take medication through the skin instead of using a needle.

The material for Triton's helium capsule for the Converse shoe "dates to before the term nanotechnology was even coined," Haghighat said, to 1998.

This plastic capsule is made with a special polymer with clay molecules layered inside, trapping helium better than normal plastic. Anyone who has seen a helium balloon go flat after a day or two knows that the inert gas is hard to trap. The helium capsule gives the basketball shoe better cushioning with a lower heel, Triton claims.

Triton, with revenues of $18 million and 100 employees, has also created scratch-resistant coatings for eye wear for the Navy.

There are other examples of nanotechnology companies in the area, such as the semiconductor company Memsic Inc., which makes Micro Electro-mechanical Systems. These devices can have moving parts smaller than a human hair, according Small Times Magazine. Memsic makes accelerometers, or motion sensors, that have no moving parts.

The tiny devices can be used in car alarms, cell phones, PDAs, laptops, games, toys and earthquake monitoring devices, according to the company's Web site.

UMass Lowell has already had a hand in creating a nanotechnology startup company called Konarka Technologies, now located in the city's Boott Mill.

The company makes flexible photovoltaic solar panels using nanosized crystals of titanium dioxide. The flexible solar cells capture sunlight and turn it into electricity, and could someday let a soldier power up battery-powered equipment in the field without having to lug around batteries.