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Small-scale technology grant brings big things

By Used with permission from the Eagle Tribune Online.

LOWELL -- A center for nanoscale science and engineering could lead to highly skilled jobs in the Merrimack Valley as scientists develop new ways to mass produce devices a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

The University of Massachusetts Lowell, Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire won a five-year, $12.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation for nanotechnology research.

The money will fuse the efforts of the three universities in a Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing.

The aim is to bring nanotechnology products out of the lab to be produced in factories for commercial use. Each institution will receive about $4 million.

"That scale up is going to require new manufacturing processes. It's going to require new manufacturing equipment and worker training," said UMass Lowell Chancellor William T. Hogan.

"It's good for us," Hogan said. "It's good for the region. It's good news."

Hogan said Congressman Martin T. Meehan, D-Lowell, an alumnus of the university and a member of the Congressional Nanotechnology Caucus, supported the grant. He said UMass Lowell is expected to receive an additional $5 million from the state for its center, and Gov. Mitt Romney has matched the National Science Foundation's grant with $2 million more.

Money to construct a new nanotechnology center, $19.4 million, was not included in this year's budget, Hogan said, though he added that Romney said in a published report that he would fight for the money.

The universities will work together on the center dedicated to repeatedly making really small things on a really large scale.

The center could give the region an edge, allowing the Merrimack Valley to reinvent itself from electronics and high technology and giving its work force the edge, Hogan said. Already, 170 companies in the state develop or are interested in nanotechnology products. They employ 30,000 people and generate $5 billion in revenues.

Nanotechnology, the science of things smaller than a micron and about the length of 100 atoms, holds the promise for smaller, powerful computer memory chips made from carbon nanotubes.

It may mean biosensors so small they could detect disease from a small drop of blood, said Dr. Joey Mead, a professor and co-director of the University of Massachusetts Lowell's Nanomanufacturing Center.

Scientists and engineers cannot see or handle nanoparticles, so they have to coax building blocks for nanodevices or materials into place to build themselves, said University of New Hampshire point person and investigator Glen Miller in a statement.

Hogan said unlike electronics or biotechnology, nanotechnology techniques can be used in a number of disciplines to improve products already on the market.

"Nanotechnology has the ability to make significant changes in how surfaces behave and how they last," Hogan said.

Nanotechnology manufacturing techniques could be used to make medicines like insulin that could be absorbed through the skin. The medications would be enclosed in tiny, basketball-shaped particles 50 nanometers in diameter, Hogan said.

Hogan said nanotechnology could also make textiles more fire retardant or resistant to creasing and odors.

Nanotechnology techniques are being used by a company called Konarkar in Lowell. The company is working to produce flexible photovoltaic cells that capture sunlight and turn it into electricity. Such cells could be used to make a roof that generates power, or a cell phone that recharges itself, Hogan said.

Mead said the new grant money will go toward equipment, students and faculty needed to develop new programs.

Hogan said the University of New Hampshire has a strength in biological structures; Northeastern has a long history with microelectronics; and UMass Lowell's strength is in materials.