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New NSF center to study the fundamentals of nanostructures

| 10 November 2004

Nanobatteries, nanopumps, nanomotors, and a slew of other nanoscale devices — most with parts that move a mere fraction of the width of an atom — are among the promises of a new $11.9-million Center of Integrated Nano-mechanical Systems (COINS) starting up this fall on the Berkeley campus.

The center, one of six new Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers funded for five years by the National Science Foundation (NSF), will harness the skills of theoretical and experimental physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers to explore the basic science of nanostructures and then use this knowledge both to create nanoscale building blocks and to assemble them into working devices.

The goal is to merge nanotubes and a host of other Tinkertoy-like nanopieces with organic molecules — DNA, proteins, or nanomolecular motors — to create sensors or nanomachines small enough to fit on the back of a virus. Each nanoscale building block ranges from a few to hundreds of nanometers across (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, about one-thousandth the width of a human hair).

“We can’t help getting excited about the richness and diversity of the science involved and the opportunities in coupling this to potential applications and making little devices,” said center director Alex Zettl, professor of physics. Zettl is at the forefront of research on nanotubes, which are extremely strong strands of pure carbon or boron nitride that can act as electrical conductors or semiconductors, yet also have interesting thermal and mechanical properties. To date, he has created nanobearings from a pair of telescoped nanotubes, a nanomotor with a nanotube as the shaft, and nanotube-based nanotransistors, chemical sensors, and electron-field emitters for flat-panel displays.

“We’ll be designing new and modifying existing building blocks to make them accessible to assembling technologies to the point where you could order them like you order lumber at a lumberyard,” Zettl said. “This is quite ambitious. There will be a lot of scientific and engineering challenges here.”

The advantage of nanoscale devices is not only small size but small power consumption — the tinier the device, the less energy required to run it. Some of the devices, however, will generate energy, either chemically or mechanically or via light. Many of the building blocks and structures based on them will first be examined theoretically, with only the most promising candidates pursued experimentally.

The group, which consists of 28 researchers from Berkeley, UC Merced, Stanford University, and the California Institute of Technology, includes engineers, physicists, chemists, and biologists (as well as an economist). While some of the researchers are synthesizing and characterizing various building blocks, others will integrate them and map out system properties, and still others will develop the tools to manipulate and construct new building blocks and systems. Several researchers will pursue the theoretical basics and limits of new devices.

“What COINS will do is bring together faculty and students who can make nanoscale building blocks, predict and measure their unique properties, and assemble these building blocks into devices and systems. This, in turn, will lead to revolutionary new applications in information technology, energy, and health care,” said Tom Kalil, a special assistant to Chancellor Birgeneau. Kalil helped meld the diverse group of researchers into a coherent center that captured the attention of the NSF.

Researchers in the center will be able to take advantage of the new research facilities that are being created by the two California Institutes for Science and Innovation located at Berkeley: the Center for Infor-mation Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3).

A major education and outreach component of COINS involves not only undergraduate education at the Berkeley and Merced campuses but public outreach through the Lawrence Hall of Science. And decision-makers in Sacramento will be briefed on nanotechnology and other important scientific issues through a new program called “Capitol Science,” organized with Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.

A student group, the year-old Berkeley Nanotechnology Club, has even been brought into the center to provide an important point of contact between student entrepreneurs in science, engineering, business, and law to encourage technology transfer to the marketplace. The club “encourages the formation of teams of science and engineering students with Haas School of Business students to develop business plans around some of the new technologies that will emerge from the new center,” Kalil said.