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From Body Armor to Mini-Mutt Sensors: The Promise of Nanotechnology

Latest Advances Highlighted at Destination Nano

U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas addresses the attendees at Destination Nano.


Edwin L. Aguirre

Imagine a portable “mini-mutt” that is many times more sensitive than a bloodhound in sniffing out traces of harmful chemical agents or explosives; a network of tiny sensors than can detect microscopic cracks or other structural defects in the body armor or vehicles used by soldiers on the battlefield; and flexible, lightweight and inexpensive organic photovoltaic cells that can be used in practically any weather for electrifying remote, isolated villages.

These are just some of the exciting potential of nanotechnology. Nanoparticles, measuring in billionths of a meter, are likely to fuel the next economic boom. Existing products can be made more useful, cost-effective and durable through the incorporation of nano-size materials. Entirely new nano products, as yet undreamed of, will revolutionize everything ߞ; from how the world “powers up” each day to how cancer is treated.

UMass Lowell Hosts Destination Nano

UMass Lowell, in partnership with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s John Adams Innovation Institute, recently hosted “Destination Nano,” a two-day conference and workshop held at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center that brought together government, business and academic leaders to take a look at the current state of nanomanufacturing and determine how far we need to go to bring nano products from the laboratory onto the factory assembly lines.

Nearly 200 people attended Destination Nano, which featured the latest trends on sensors, nanomaterials, environmental health and safety, nanomedicine and energy. The University’s renowned team of nano experts, including Profs. Joey Mead and Carol Barry, participated, along with leaders from industry, federal and state government and academia.

“I understand the importance of nanomanufacturing to our economy, and that is why I helped secure $4 million for UMass Lowell’s nano work with the Army Research Lab in Fiscal Year 2011 federal appropriations,” said U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas in her opening remarks.

Tsongas, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said a provision that she had authored in this year’s national defense authorization passed by the House will help remove bureaucratic obstacles to getting lightweight body-armor solutions to service members in Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

“The heavy load of equipment and body armor has resulted in service members suffering from debilitating back and knee injuries, among other conditions, and limiting the number of soldiers that can be deployed as a result,” she said. “My legislation will set the stage for the Department of Defense to work with institutions like those represented [at Destination Nano] to develop the innovative design ideas necessary for more modular, lighter body armor."

She said the R&D work being done through public/private and academic/industry partnerships, like those being further developed today, “will ensure our continued economic competitiveness and the safety of our troops.”

NIOSH Agreement with Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing

Later at the conference, Chancellor Marty Meehan announced an agreement between the National Science Foundation Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN) ߞ; a collaboration of the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire ߞ; and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the federal agency charged with preventing work-related injuries.

“UMass Lowell is committed to developing new technologies safely,” said Meehan. “As companies work with us to develop manufacturing processes for nanoscale products, the business practices will incorporate worker health and safety concerns at the outset, not at the end point.”

Under the agreement, UMass Lowell researchers in the School of Health and Environment ߞ; Prof. Mike Ellenbecker, Researcher Candace Tsai and others ߞ; will work with Dr. Chuck Geraci, who is the coordinator of the NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Center and also was one of the invited speakers at the nano conference.

Together, NIOSH and UMass Lowell researchers will study occupational health and safety concerns related to the nanotechnology industry. They will conduct site visits to evaluate potential exposures to nanomaterials and recommend solutions to small- to medium-sized companies and research laboratories around the country.

“This work is a critical proactive step to paving the way for the commercialization of nanotech-based products,” said Meehan.

Meehan also announced that UMass Lowell and NIOSH will co-sponsor the 5th International Symposium on Nanotechnology, Occupational and Environmental Health that will be held in Boston next August.

“More than 600 scientists and engineers around the globe are expected to attend and learn about the latest technical advances in the field of nanotech research,” he said.

Profs. Joey Mead and Carol Barry, center, with Carlos Martinez-Vela, Joseph Downing and James Byrnes of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s John Adams Innovation Institute.