LOWELL -- The term "American manufacturing" conjures images of the factory floors of Detroit's auto giants in their heyday, assembly lines pumping out two-ton Cadillacs. The future of large-scale manufacturing in Massachusetts and the U.S. is smaller -- much smaller.
Tuesday morning, leaders from the world of academia, science, business and government gathered at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center for a two-day conference titled "Destination Nano: Concept to Commercialization," a look at the advancement of nanotechnology and nanomanufacturing in New England and nationwide.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas said she expects the nanotechnology field to bring forth "a wide array of innovative game-changers in the years ahead."
Tsongas, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, has seen how nanoscience is affecting the lives of U.S. soldiers overseas, from lighter-weight body armor to trauma sensor tape in helmets, flexible antennas and solar cells. It can also be used for defense purposes by creating sensors to help soldiers detect biological and chemical agents or to detect of a helicopter blade is damaged.
Tsongas has also seen how products produced through nanotechnology can revolutionize our lives, such as a cheap catalyst that can produce hydrogen gas. Previously, platinum was used, which costs $50,000 per kilogram.
"It reduces pollution and our dependence on foreign oil, as well as provides a cost savings," she said.
Nanoscience deals with any particle that is 1 to 100 nanometers wide. By comparison, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
Nanotechnology is attractive to manufacturing companies because nano particles have unique properties used to create stronger and lighter materials. On a practical level, nanocoatings can be applied to eyeglasses to make them harder to scratch and easier to keep clean, or as a coating on fabrics make them more stain-resistant.
A recent Brookings Institute report concluded American manufacturing is undergoing a renaissance thanks to innovative technologies like nanotech and life-science industries, a boon that could usher in the next wave of American manufacturing and rebuild the local economy.
More than $14 billion in federal money has been funneled into nanotechnology research and development since the establishment of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2001. The National Science Foundation estimates the global market for nanotech-based products will exceed $1 trillion within 15 years.
Construction of an 84,000-square-foot, $70 million Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center is nearly complete on UMass Lowell's North Campus. It will be one of four nanotechnology centers in the country. According to UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan, research funding at the university has increased by 60 percent in the last four years.
Last month, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Board granted the university $10 million for equipment for the new building, Meehan said.
"This will be the most important new research and development infrastructure investment north of Boston in 30 years," he added.
The conference continues Wednesday at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. City Manager Bernie Lynch and Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Greg Bialecki are scheduled to speak.