UA to share $4.5 million to further nanotechnology
Alliance with Oklahoma school set to research computers.
By Tracie Dungan
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The quest to continue building faster, more powerful computers requires packing more components into them, and University of Arkansas researchers will soon be building these components atom by atom.
UA and the University of Oklahoma have won a joint $4.5 million, five-year research grant from the National Science Foundation.
They'll also join researchers internationally who are pioneering the field of "nanoscience," which some experts predict will yield most of the future breakthroughs in technology, chemistry, engineering, physics and medicine.
The universities will form the Materials Research in Science and Engineering Center, the fourth such center the foundation has established within the past month.
UA Chancellor John A. White, who'd just announced a $9.63 million research grant for the Fayetteville campus on Oct. 13, said this one also will help the university further its research goals.
"This is huge," the chancellor said.
While he was dean of engineering at Georgia Tech University, White said, he and his colleagues tried repeatedly to get such a research center at that school.
"We were never successful," he said.
UA's share of the federal grant is $2.25 million, with a $1.39 million match from Arkansas. White thanked Arkansas lawmakers and Gov. Mike Huckabee for setting aside a research matching fund during the 1999 legislative session.
Nanoscientists study the way microscopic particles of mass -- nature's toolbox of atoms and molecules -- arrange themselves naturally.
Then they try different groupings without changing a substances chemical composition to create superior medicines, fuels and chemicals -- or, in this instance, computers.
"Nano," derived from the Greek word for "dwarf," is a prefix meaning one-billionth."
So a nanosecond is one-billionth of a second and a nanoliter is one-billionth of a liter.
When nanoscientists speak of a nanometer, that one-billionth of a meter is about the length of perhaps 10 atoms side by side. One million of them lined up equals about the width of a pinhead.
For years, futurists who have immersed themselves in the science-fiction culture have talked of nanotechnologies.
More recently, researchers have speculated that nanoscience could result in the better brick: construction materials that could adapt themselves to changing weather conditions by becoming more or less permeable to humidity and air.
Other examples outlined in a report by President Clinton's National Science and Technology Council include cancer-seeking drugs, or paint containing nanoscale pigment particles that could rearrange themselves so aircraft covered with them could blend into surroundings like a chameleon.
The report explains how scientists copy nature's use of nanotechnologies by describing how the abalone, a mollusk, creates a super-tough, iridescent shell that resists cracking to protect its squishy body.
The creatures fashion their beautiful suits of armor, "by organizing the same calcium carbonate of crumbly schoolroom chalk into tough nanostructured bricks," the report explains.
Their mortar: a protein and carbohydrate goo that stretches. The shell's structure and the goo work together to repair cracks before they can spread.
UA researchers will do similar studies on how atoms behave -- only their atoms will be the ingredients for computer chips.
"This will operate in that realm," said Ken Vickers, a physics research professor who will work on the new center's team.
If you put atoms on a microelectronic surface, he said, they tend to cluster together and they do so in patterns. Nanoscientists try to manipulate the atoms, creating new patterns so the new structure will perform a certain way.
Think of it as throwing a pile of bricks on the lawn, and they spontaneously build a house," said Vickers, a former engineering manager for Texas Instruments' Integrated Circuit Facility in Sherman, Texas.
It's all about scaling down the building blocks of a computer, he said.
Computers, which once took up entire rooms, have shrunk in size over the years and grown faster and more powerful.
But there is potential, with nanotechnology, to further shrink computers by squeezing their components into a smaller space.
By scaling down a transistor's size on an integrated circuit board, it's possible that 400 billion transistors could be packed into the same space that 400 million take up now.
The new computer could make 1,000 times as many decisions a second as its predecessor.
Nanotechnology has been getting more attention from the federal government in the past years.
In fiscal 1997, the United States invested about $116 million in nanotechnology research and development, according to the report.
The figure grew to an estimated $260 million in fiscal 1999, with the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy later issuing a joint memorandum to federal agency heads recommending nanotechnology as a research priority for federal investment in fiscal 2001.
The UA-Oklahoma center is one of four the National Science Foundation has established, at a five-year cost of $24 million, since Sept. 27, said Ulrich Strom, a foundation program director who works in Arlington, Va.
The other new centers are at the California Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia. Strom estimated 80 percent of the work at the four centers will involve nanoscience.
The foundation also recently announced $110 million in renewed grants for 11 existing centers, Strom said, estimating that about one-third of their work is in that field.
Vickers said technology companies like his former employer Texas Instruments often consider whether a research university is nearby when they're scouting new locations.
The companies like to know there's a university close by where they can send their employees to study with researchers.
And many times, Vickers said the employees don't need scientific training.
"Building the integrated circuit -- let me tell you , it's not that scientific," he said, meaning the workers can be trained to build things without ever understanding the mysteries of how they work.
Arkansas should care about research funding even if they're not interested in science, because their children stand to benefit from education and good jobs, Vickers said.
In August, UA officials said the Fayetteville campus was at least five years away from its goal of ranking among the best research universities.
The rankings are based on how much a university spends on research. For at least the last couple of years, UA spent less on research than the amount it was awarded.
It's important for the university to weigh in and compete because each research dollar a university brings into its state translates into a multiplier effect of an estimated $9 to $10 economic benefit, Provost Bob Smith said.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, UA's total research funding rose 18.3 percent, to $49.1 million.
A series of large grant awards this year has put the university ahead of the level it had reached this time last year and better positions it to reach the long-term goal, White said.