WMU Delves Into Nanoscience

January 3, 2003
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KALAMAZOO — Western Michigan University’s trustees last month established a center that will conduct research on the highest tech in high tech — nanoscience.

The research — the study of the infinitesimal — takes its name from the word “nanometer,” defined as one-billionth of a meter. That’s roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair or about the size of 10 hydrogen atoms laid side by side.

But if the center is to focus on the study of the small, WMU’s new Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center (NRCC) also will compete for a very large and growing pool of research dollars.

For instance, DARPA — the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense — has earmarked more than $124 million explicitly for nanotechnology and Microsystems in the current year.

Beyond that, Congress has favorably responded to the Bush administration’s request to appropriate more than $500 million for other federal nanotechnology initiatives.

Meanwhile, Small Times, a Michigan-based journal that covers the industry, says private investments in the field are expected to be about $1.2 billion during the next year.

And much of that investment is in product, not research — shatterproof beer bottles, flat screen monitors and TVs, high definition cinema projection, minivan running boards, home pregnancy kits and electronics.

The old Dick Tracy comic strip two-way wristwatch radio is going to make its debut this year in the form of a $1,000 strap-on device from Samsung.

Meanwhile, dozens of companies, federal laboratories and research institutions around the world are racing to develop always-on detection systems that can sound the alarm about the presence of anthrax, botulism, plague, smallpox and tularemia in packages, buildings and water supplies.

According to WMU’s provost, Daniel M. Litynski, the NRCC will serve as a funding entity for research into how to manipulate what one scientist calls “the ultimate Legos: atoms and molecules.”

Small Times cautions that — just like the here-today, gone-the-next dot-com industry — nanotech so far isn’t delivering the job creation numbers or the profits that its cheerleaders keep promising.

But eventually, according to its proponents, nanotech will develop machines that will construct even smaller machines and so forth virtually to the disappearing point, so that machines half the size of blood cells can be sent on nanosurgical voyages inside the human body.

For now, Litynski said, the center’s chief mission is to serve as a cross-disciplinary institute in which WMU faculty members from biology, chemistry, physics and engineering can work together in the study of the tiny in mechanical and organic systems.

Directing the center will be Subra Murali, a professor of chemistry with extensive research credentials in analytical, inorganic, organic and physical chemistry.

Murali has led several nanotech projects with funding from the Michigan Life Sciences Initiative and the U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory and Pharmacia Corp.

Murali, several industry representatives and WMU academic administrators compose the center’s governance committee.

The committee will select the center’s nanotech scholars and determine and launch its research agenda.

Litynski also said the center will increase educational opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.

WMU claims it already is a leader in nanobioenvironmental chemistry research and that several of the university’s scholars already are working independently in nanoscience and nanoengineering.

One set of WMU researchers, he reports, is using nanotechnology to embed the capabilities of an up-to-date laboratory onto a microchip that can speed certain research analysis one hundred-fold.

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