Dec. 22, 2003

NSF creates 13-member National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, forming coast-to-coast, shared open laboratory

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The National Science Foundation (NSF) has designated a 13-member national consortium as the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), creating the world's largest and most accessible nanoscale laboratory. The consortium will enable university students and researchers, as well as scientists from corporate and government laboratories, to have open access to resources they need for studying molecular and higher length-scale materials and processes and applying them in a variety of structures, devices and systems.

Named to lead NNIN is Sandip Tiwari, director of the NSF-funded Cornell Nanoscale Facility (CNF), a national user facility on the Cornell campus. NSF funding to the new network is expected to be $70-million or higher for five years, beginning in January 2004, with the possibility of a five-year renewal.

Other consortium members who will share their specialized facilities are Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Howard University, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, Triangle National Lithographic Center (operated by North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina), University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, University of New Mexico, University of Texas at Austin and University of Washington, Seattle.

Nanoscale and nanotechnology refer to work on small-size systems approaching the molecular level.

NSF Engineering Advisor Lawrence Goldberg says the new network is a significant expansion of the capabilities of the decade-old, five-university National Nanofabrication Users Network (NNUN), which it replaces. "NNIN will implement, on a national scale, innovation in education that will impact all levels from professional through K-12, include outreach efforts to non-traditional users, reach underrepresented groups, and disseminate knowledge to the wider technical community and public. It will also develop the intellectual and institutional capacity needed to examine and address societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology," he says. Tiwari, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell, notes, "By assembling and offering to share our specialized resources with any and all qualified users, we have created the world's largest, most comprehensive and accessible laboratory for research and development at extremely small dimensions. Networking America's very best talent and tools for research, development and training will ensure this nation's leadership in nanotechnology for the future."

Stanford Nanofabrication Facility Director Yoshio Nishi, a professor of electrical engineering, says the user network, "together with Stanford Nanocharacterization Facility, will provide strong resources across a broad range of disciplines in nanotechnology: in fabrication, robust and reproducible synthesis, characterization, and prototyping of complex nanostructures, devices and systems."

At Georgia Tech, James Meindl, director of the institute's Microelectronics Research Center, says educational outreach to college undergraduates -- and even to K-12 students -- is an important part of the new network. Among the resources Georgia Tech will be sharing nationwide, Meindl says, is a $4 million electron beam nanolithography system to etch patterns at the nanoscale. "This critical tool, which is funded by the Georgia Research Alliance, and our specially trained staff will facilitate advances in bio-electronics, nanotechnology and advanced microelectronics," he says.

Venkatesh Narayanamurti, dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences and dean of physical sciences at Harvard, says the network "provides users across the nation with access to leading-edge fabrication and characterization tools and instruments in support of nanoscale science and engineering research and education." Pledging full access to the Center for Imaging and Mesoscale Structures at Harvard, Narayanamurti notes that Harvard's specific responsibilities in the network include: soft lithography and assembly of nanoparticle and molecular electronics, theoretical simulations of electron states and transport in nanoscale systems, and the establishment of core computational resources to assist users in understanding and visualizing new device structures.

Social and ethical issues raised by nanotechnology cover "an incredible range," according to Bruce Lewenstein, an associate professor of science communication at Cornell. "They range from the ethical implications of doing research on human enhancement to the privacy implications of having tiny and very powerful computers widely accessible." Lewenstein and other researchers of social and ethical issues plan to examine, for example, the effects on the workforce of changes in manufacturing processes that nanotechnology will bring, as well as the complications of intellectual property ownership when new ideas are built with government money at academic institutions and then are developed by industry. "Our goal," Lewenstein says, "is to build the capacity of NNIN users, as well as students and others throughout the country, to deal with these issues in informed and critical ways."

Cornell Vice Provost for Research Robert C. Richardson says the new network builds on the pioneering success of NNUN. "The new network will greatly expand the open-facilities culture to new geographic regions and to new research disciplines," Richardson predicts. Opening resources of the 13 consortium members, he says, "will meet new experimental and computational needs and will accommodate a much broader set of under-served researchers and students nationwide."

Among the Cornell-based facilities participating in NNIN, besides CNF, are three NSF-funded facilities: the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR), the Center for Nanoscale Systems (CNS) and the Nanobiotechnology Center. CCMR, CNS and the nanobiotechnology center already receive funding from NYSTAR, the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research.

Cornell will receive at least $2.5 million per year from the NSF for its participation in the nanotechnology network.

Cornell's Robert Buhrman, director of CNS and the John Edson Sweet Professor of Engineering, recounts the university's tradition of open access to specialized resources: "Beginning with the National Submicron Facility that NSF established at Cornell in 1977, and which has evolved so very successfully into what is now the Cornell Nanoscale Facility, Cornell and its partnering institutions have been at the forefront in enabling research and education in nanoscale science and engineering." He adds, New and expanded capabilities, such as nanoimprinting and molecular assembly, will now be available to researchers in this exciting nanotechnology infrastructure network, and will definitely have a major impact on revolutionary nanoscale solutions to meet the needs of future information technologies."

Noting the need for discovery-driven research at a time when most industry research is mission- and profit-oriented, and the need for finding a balance, Tiwari observes, "In the experimental science and engineering research at the nano- and micro-scale, exciting interdisciplinary research depends on sharing the diverse resources, techniques, tools and knowledge from various disciplines and institutions so that researchers can follow their own interests. This network brings together these resources for the overall good of the nation and is critical to the success of research in this new environment."