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Tiny Materials, Big Ambitions

NC State engineers play key roles in the university's top-flight nanotechnology efforts.

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Dr. Veena Misra wants the laptop you buy five years from now to bear little resemblance to the one you have now. It should be many times faster, much more powerful and allow you to do things you’ve never dreamed of doing on your current machine.

Like dozens of other researchers at NC State, Misra is using nanotechnology — in which researchers manipulate the properties of the tiniest of materials — to make those advances happen.

“We want to demonstrate nanotechnology in a real device that can make a difference,” said Misra, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We can take nano fundamentals and apply them to real world applications.”

Today you can find dozens of NC State engineers interacting with each other and with researchers across campus as part of the NC State Nanotechnology Initiative, a university-wide effort established in 2006. The initiative focuses on nanotechnology research, outreach and education and seeks to foster inter-disciplinary research and infrastructure; expand academic programs and educational impact in the field; and support nanotechnology-focused collaborations within the university and with local industry.

Nanotechnology focuses on the fabrication and manipulation of materials and devices with dimensions less than 100 nanometers; for perspective, the head of a pin is about 1 million nanometers wide. When these tiny materials and structures are altered and controlled, they exhibit unique properties not found in larger-scale systems. For example, aluminum, a normally stable material, becomes combustible on the “nanoscale.”  And copper, an opaque substance, becomes transparent.

Such changes can lead to the creation and improvement of devices, products and materials that we use every day. NC State engineers have made key advances in this area, including developing new approaches for adding antimicrobial properties to microneedles, tiny needles that hold great promise for use in portable medical devices; developing an inexpensive treatment process using a nanoscale film that significantly lessens odors from poultry rendering operations; and creating a “smart coating” that helps surgical implants bond more closely with bone and ward off infection.

These results have gained NC State national recognition as a nanotechnology leader. In 2009, Small Times ranked NC State among its top 10 US academic institutions in nano commercialization and research. In addition, Raleigh was one of the top five cities designated as a “nano metro” cluster by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

And Dr. Jagdish “Jay” Narayan, the John C.C. Fan Family Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, recently received the Acta Materialia Gold Medal and Prize for accomplishments in the field, which include creating materials that could allow a fingernail-size computer chip to store the equivalent of 250 million pages of text.

Researchers at NC State have been conducting world-class nanotechnology research for more than two decades, but in many cases, groups working in different disciplines weren’t aware of what their NC State peers were doing. In the early 2000s, campus leaders began a push toward forming an umbrella nanotechnology group that would promote collaboration among nanotechnology researchers on campus and develop interaction opportunities for researchers interested in emerging nanotechnology fields, such as nanobiotechnology and nanotoxicology. That work spawned what became the Nanotechnology Initiative.

“People were thinking that nanotechnology had potential in a lot of different fields, so we wanted to have some way to help faculty on campus communicate about research that they’re doing,” said Dr. Gregory Parsons, director of the initiative and Alcoa Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Today, the initiative includes researchers from nine NC State colleges, including many from the College of Engineering. These engineers realize the importance of collaboration, especially regarding research proposals to funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation.

“In order to successfully get funded these days, proposals must be cross-disciplinary in nature and bring together scientists from different disciplines in order to effectively address the challenges,” Misra said.

Among Misra’s collaborative projects is an effort to use magnetic nanowires to decrease the power dissipation per chip, increase the number of transistors and improve the speed of electronic devices.

Silicon is the transistor material most frequently used in devices such as laptops, PCs and cell phones, but researchers appear to have hit a wall. Silicon is reaching its limit to be scaled down and is losing its ability to uphold Moore’s Law, a technology rule of thumb holding that the number of transistors that can be squeezed into a computer chip doubles every 18 months. This pace of progress can’t be sustained unless researchers work with new materials on the very small scale.

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