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School trio lands $12.6M nanomanufacturing grant

By From Mass High Tech

By Jeff Miller
Three New England universities have won a $12.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a Center for High Rate Nanomanufacturing: Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the University of New Hampshire.

And though the participating universities believe that their research will bear fruit for a wide range of nanotechnology companies within the next five years, products from two Massachusetts companies ߞ; Woburn-based Nantero Inc. and Chelmsford-based Triton Systems Inc. ߞ; will serve as the initial models.

Also, 13 companies have contributed $9 million to the center, though much of that is not cash but in-kind contributions.

Northeastern University in Boston will administer the center, and the center’s director will be Northeastern mechanical engineering professor, Ahmed Busnaina.

Nonetheless, significant research will take place at all three campuses. In addition, a researcher from the Michigan State University will participate.

The Center’s aim is to develop methods for scaling up the fabrication of nanoscale products from the minute amounts produced in university research labs to the truckloads of consistent product required for commercial use.

“We wanted to focus tightly on the scale-up from lab quantities to commercial quantities: large volume, fast throughput, high repeatability for quality control and an economical process for high profit margins,” said William Hogan, chancellor of UMass-Lowell.

More specifically, said Joey Mead, associate professor at UMass-Lowell and deputy director of the center, the aim is to develop nanotemplates for manufacturing.

“They’ll guide nanoscale elements to the right position so there will be a pattern, and that pattern would be correctly functionalized for guided self-assembly,” Mead said.

The universities will use the money primarily to purchase equipment, underwrite research, fund graduate students and fund post-doctoral fellows.

With a multi-university center developing intellectual property that could form the manufacturing backbone of a new industry, rights issues could stand to be thorny.

But the institutions involved have already hashed out many of the issues, said Glen Miller, an associate professor of chemistry at UNH and co-principal investigator and UNH point-person for the center.

“The three schools had their respective IP departments come together to work on the IP issues,” Miller said. “There’s still some work to do in that regard, but all three have a solid tech transfer history. Most likely, (IP revenue) would be shared. It would depend on the IP issue and who’s involved.”

The two companies whose products will serve as the initial models for the center both work in nanotechnology, but are developing very different products.

Nantero aims to replace current RAM with its so-called NRAM. Using electrostatic forces, a carbon nanotube can be bent into different shapes, two of which would be used to represent the ones and zeros of binary numbers. Billions of nanotubes can fit into one four-inch wafer.

Because this process moves only a few carbon atoms in each tube, Nantero claims it can run NRAM at 2 GHz. If the power is turned off, the nanotubes’ states don’t change, so no data is lost. That would allow personal computer users, for instance, to enjoy the same kind of “instant boot” enabled by Flash memory, but without the disadvantages of high cost and slow speeds.

The company is already conducting pilot fabrication with two companies: LSI Logic’s Oregon factory and BAE Systems’ plant in Virginia. The center will focus on a second-generation Nantero product, said Nantero chief executive, Greg Schmergel.

“We hope it will leverage our resources by doing the very focused work that needs to be done for our product and for others that use nanotech,” Schmergel said.

Triton Systems’ product, on the other hand, is a nanochip for multi-agent immuno-assay, which would function as a biochip to detect multiple agents, said George Kachen, vice president of business development at Triton Systems.

“(The center) is developing nanotemplates which would be key to large-scale manufacturing of nanosensors,” Kachen said.

But though these two companies will serve as models, the center’s goal is much more ambitious.

“The center is addressing a wide range of issues associated with the challenges of manufacturing for nanotechnology,” said Srinivas Sridhar, vice provost for research at Northeastern. “Today, where many of the devices are at the component level, if you really want to use them in applications, one will have to scale up and make billions of identical elements. This center will be a national center for high-rate nanomanufacturing.”