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National Science Foundation funds new nanoscale research center at Illinois

James Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor
(217) 244-1073;


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to create a nanoscale science and engineering center with an emphasis on nanomanufacturing. The grant will provide $12.5 million in funding over five years, with the possibility of a five-year renewal.

The Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems is directed by Placid Ferreira, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering. Illinois is the lead university for the center. Partner institutions are the California Institute of Technology and North Carolina Agricultural and Technological State University.

The center’s mission is to create a nanomanufacturing system. Phenomena that occur at the nanoscale (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter) can have widespread impact on industries such as health care and electronics, Ferreira said, but only if tools and methodologies can be created that exploit those phenomena. Much of current nanoscale research focuses on making scientific discoveries and exploring the physics of the nanoscale. The center will take scientific discovery to the next level.

"It won’t make a difference if nanoscale technology allows a few scientists to do a few things more efficiently," Ferreira said. "If we create something that changes the way we communicate or gives rise to new medical treatments, then you begin to see an impact." The crucial step, he said, is manufacturing, which brings the discoveries of science to the benefit of the general public through the realization of products.

"Research in manufacturing science provides the technical innovation necessary to support advances in predictability and productivity for industries such as electronics, medicine, transportation and security, as well as the creation of completely new manufacturing sectors," said Warren DeVries, director of NSF’s Division of Design, Manufacturing, and Industrial Innovation.

A nanomanufacturing system that can build three-dimensional systems in real time is now possible because of a recent discovery made on the Illinois campus. A research team led by mechanical and industrial engineering professor Mark Shannon and chemistry professors Paul Bohn and Jonathan Sweedler developed a molecular gate. The researchers had been working on a biological intelligent processor that manipulates extremely small amounts of organic molecules for detecting toxins.

The molecular gates can precisely dispense chemicals in amounts that are unprecedented – attoliters, which are a million trillion times smaller than the contents of a two-liter bottle, and zeptomoles, which are a billion trillion times smaller than the size of a quarter. Using molecular gates in a nanomanufacturing system will allow researchers to build from the nanoscale up, creating new and complex devices.

"We are hopeful that research breakthroughs coming out of the center will enable the high-throughput production of many different solids, liquids and chemically reacting molecules at the nanoscale," DeVries said. "We anticipate that the center will not only help us understand how to manipulate different materials at this scale, but will also collaborate with industry and educators at all levels to lead the creation and transfer of this new nanotechnology knowledge to a diverse workforce for the future."

Joining Ferreira as co-principal investigators in the center are Shannon, Illesanmi Adesida, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Paul Kenis, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Stephen Quake of Caltech and Jagannathan Sankar of North Carolina A&T will be the site coordinators for their campuses.

The center will be designed to bring together researchers with diverse expertise – in partnership with industry, government laboratories and partners from other sectors – to address complex, interdisciplinary challenges in nanoscale science and engineering. The center will span the range from exploratory research to technology innovation, and will have a well-integrated research and education plan, with a strong effort in human resource development and societal impact.