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A natural for nano

Dr. Jacob Jones

The new Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network (RTNN) is an interdisciplinary innovation hub that hopes to speed the development of new nanotechnology-based products, research, fabrication and education.

NC State will lead the network in partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. RTNN is funded by a $5.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is one of 16 sites chosen as part of NSF’s new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI).

“We are the only site in the entire national network that has three major research universities partnering in this way. So our network really provides access to a tremendous amount of resources for not just North Carolina, but for anyone across the country,” said Dr. Jacob Jones, a professor of materials science and engineering at NC State and principal investigator of the grant.

Businesses and Entrepreneurs

Large and small companies and entrepreneurs will benefit from the enhanced access to university resources that RTNN will provide. Reaching out to these developers and researchers to let them know what is available is part of the network’s current focus.

“The whole premise of the National Infrastructure Network is that universities have exceptional resources at their disposal related to nanotechnology – including clean rooms, deposition systems, scanning electron and transmission microscopes,” said Jones.

“But the world doesn’t readily know how to access that equipment – so the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure is the entity that opens doors and facilitates people using university nanotechnology resources.”

Jones said that companies would be provided access to resources at all three universities to facilitate fabrication of nanotechnology and devices, and to facilitate characterization of those devices. In some cases, that equipment already exists and in others the RTNN is in the process of acquiring it.

Access to these resources isn’t the only benefit for businesses and entrepreneurs. Education and outreach activities are also being planned and executed. In November, a half-day workshop on in situ characterization was held at NC State with 20 participants from companies attending.

Participants learned some of the theory and examples through two lectures given by university faculty members. Afterwards, participants toured several different laboratories that had in situ experiments running in real time.

Sky’s the Limit

So what types of products might be improved by RTNN working with companies and entrepreneurs?

“Everything around you is made of materials, and everything could be enhanced or reengineered in some way that uses nanomaterials — the world is the limit,” said Jones.

Concrete, coatings on glass windows and capacitors and circuitry in iPhones all use nanotechnology. At the level of nano, the physics of materials changes — electrical properties like resistivity and the strength of materials, for example — so there are implications everywhere. Jones says that with the types of resources provided by RTNN, nanotechnology will be enhanced in a diverse range of economic sectors, from soil science and textile engineering to animal science.

In the area of textile engineering, Jones and the RTNN are helping to develop atomic layer deposition on textiles with Dr. Greg Parsons’ research group in NC State’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Adding atomic layers of materials would create textiles that absorb or repel water, textiles that are conductive or ones that change color under certain conditions.

“If you want to brainstorm, consider about something that has been around for a long time and then think about how its function or properties could be modified or enhanced using nanotechnology. The RTNN is enabling access to the resources that enable fabrication of these new materials and devices and their characterization,” Jones said.

Education Outreach

One way that RTNN is pioneering education and outreach programs involves new uses of technology. K-12 students often visit college campuses to tour labs and watch demonstrations of high-powered microscopes. These tours often take at least a day of class time, so RTNN pioneered a plan to bring lab demonstrations to the students in their home classrooms over Skype.

“It’s always assumed you must come to the university, but why doesn’t the university go to them?” Jones said.

The first demonstration occurred on December 9, hosted by the Chapel Hill Analytical and Nanofabrication Laboratory (CHANL), an RTNN member facility. Middle school students at Orange Charter School in Hillsborough, NC were encouraged to collect hair samples from their homes.

The samples were then sent to CHANL, where UNC-Chapel Hill graduate students used a high-magnification scanning electron microscope to image the supplied samples in real time through a Web demonstration with the students. The program is now being extended to NC State and Duke labs.

RTNN is taking a conscientious approach to assessment and evaluation to ensure an impact is being made. To that end, David Berube, a professor of communication at NC State, is the lead of the social science component of the grant.

Berube is coordinating the assessments and evaluations of RTNN’s impact by conducting surveys of users, evaluating demographics, performing assessments of the user experience and assessing the education and outreach programs. It is, according to Jones, a necessary way to show the value of RTNN and also keep everyone accountable.

“We want to sustain the RTNN for a long time. We have huge potential to influence economic growth and impact the public in a positive way — assessment and evaluation is one way through which we’re going to do it. To sustain our efforts in the long term, we will remain competitive, adaptable and aggressive toward innovative programs and technologies.”

Return to contents or download the Spring/Summer 2016 NC State Engineering magazine (PDF, 3MB).

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