From the ground up

Nan­otech­nology is a huge field. When I worked at a nano­ma­te­rials start-​​up my dad would often ask me about devel­op­ments in nanomed­i­cine and I had no clue what to say.

Nan­otech­nology enables new appli­ca­tions in med­i­cine, elec­tronics, mate­rials — pretty much any­thing you can imagine.

But, fun­da­men­tally, it’s pretty simple: It’s about making things so small that they can have an enor­mous impact. That could mean making drugs that are able to pen­e­trate the cell mem­brane to kill cancer from within or it could mean minia­tur­izing the most expen­sive com­po­nents in today’s smart phones and PCs.

Northeastern’s Center for High-​​rate Nanoman­u­fac­turing (CHN) ini­tially set out to enable nano-​​scale man­u­fac­turing — “how do you make things very, very small, and assemble them in a fast way over a large area?” asked the center’s director, Ahmed Bus­naina. Lately, though, they’ve been focusing on enabling a new man­u­fac­turing system altogether.

The typ­ical nano­elec­tronic fab­ri­ca­tion facility today costs $5-$10Billion. CHN’s tech­nology cuts that number down 100 fold.

But that’s not the biggest impact,” says Bus­naina. “If you make nanoman­u­fac­turing acces­sible and afford­able, it would unleash a wave of inno­va­tion.” That’s because once nanoman­u­fac­turing is uni­ver­sally cheap, easy, and effi­cient, the field is no longer about com­pe­ti­tion but rather about making any­thing anyone can imagine.

So, how do they do it? Why is it so cheap? For one thing, the CHN tech­nique is based on simple, liquid-​​based chem­istry. It requires no vacuum pumps or extremely high tem­per­a­tures (we’re talking in the thou­sands of degrees, cel­sius). Also, while stan­dard tech­niques require both the addi­tion and removal of mate­rial, here it’s all about addi­tion — elim­i­nating 50% of the process.

The team uses “directed assembly” to force nanopar­ti­cles into posi­tion on a tem­plate. For example, the tem­plate may con­sist of hydrophobic (water “fearing”) and hydrophilic (water “loving”) areas which direct mol­e­cules of either affinity to their proper place. The tem­plate could be in the shape of a microchip or a simple column small enough to fit through the cell membrane.

CHN, a col­lab­o­ra­tion between North­eastern, UMass Lowell, Uni­ver­sity of New Hamp­shire, and Michigan State Uni­ver­sity,  is a Center of Excel­lence funded by the National Sci­ence Foundation.

Photo cour­tesy of Jason Chiota, 2009