Little gadgets, huge technology

By Bobby Feingold

This is the first in a series of articles examining programs the university is bolstering through the Academic Investment Plan.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing has been a discipline thought to be reserved for bootstrap labor and simple machines. But increasingly, scientists are devising new ways to use the machinery of the smallest particles to produce products. It is a development Northeastern has been quick to invest in, and now some experts are likening it to the invention of the steam engine in terms of its potential influence on society.

“Nanotechnology enables us to control and fabricate matter between atom and human cell,” said Srinivas Sridhar, Vice Provost for Research. “There is a whole range of applications: better computer chips, semi-conductors, medicine-targeted nano particles to target the disease. It’s a multi-trillion dollar business.”

Chris Bosso, Associate Dean of the School of Social Science, said, “Nanotechnology is the largest basic science effort since the Apollo project.”

The Apollo projects were a series of U.S. spaceflight missions in the 1960s and ’70s with the goal of landing a man on the moon.

With nanotechnology on the rise, Northeastern’s Academic Investment Plan sees it as an opportunity to establish the university as a leader in a growing field, using recent grants totaling up to $33 million to explore the field, said Dr. Ahmed Busnaina. Busnaina is the director of the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN), the largest of Northeastern’s nano centers and one of the few of its kind in the country.

The nanomanufacturing center is one of four manufacturing centers in the country to receive a grant of nearly $12.5 million, and the nanomedicine center is one of four to win a grant of approximately $5.7 million to research cancer treatments, Sridhar said. Overall, the nanomanufacturing centers at Northeastern have a total of $12.5 million in funding, $15 million for the nanomedicine center, about $4 million for nanomaterials and $1.4 million for society and ethics of nanotechnology.

Northeastern has four centers for nanotechnology. CHN is one of the premier centers of its kind in the country with the goal of mass-producing nanomaterials. The Nanomaterials center researches electronic materials, while the Nanomedicine and Bio-nanotech center looks to employ the new technology in medicine. Lastly, the Nanotechnology and Society Research Group anticipates future problems and assesses regulations during these formative years.

Northeastern’s nanotechnology funding is for the next four years. The majority of this funding comes from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, but the Department of Defense and NASA also provided approximately $4 million.

“Our partnership with major corporations, other universities and government labs is key,” Sridhar said.

Beth Isreal Deaconess Medical Center, Motorola, the Department of Defense and NASA have offered funding, Sridhar said. Northeastern shares the grants with UMass Lowell, UNH and Michigan State University, as well as the Museum of Science.

In an area of science with expanding research opportunities, Jennifer Bose, finance and administration manager for mechanical and industrial engineering, has high hopes for Northeastern’s participation.

“Our mission is to take the science of nanoscience and move it to commercialization,” Bose said. “True nanotechnology is working with the physics at this nano scale.”

Bose said it is slow research, “tube by tube,” but progress is certain. She cited nonvolatile computer chips that won’t melt as one product coming out soon. She said Northeastern is one of a handful of institutions the government is hoping will spur development.

“The government has invested enormously, hoping something wonderful will come out,” Bose said.

Leading the Northeastern initiative to study the social and policy issues raised by nanotechnology, Bosso sees nanotechnology as the future.

“Everybody’s interested-it could profoundly change our lives,” Bosso said.

Bosso said questioning of how the government will regulate the new technology is an issue that must be settled before the commercialization Bose talked about will be settled.

“There’s all these things we don’t understand,” he said. “Nobody has any answers and everybody has questions.”

Ron Sandler, assistant professor of philosophy and senior researcher in the nanotechnology and society research group, said the group is currently looking at the government’s regulator capacity, like the FDA and the federal patent office. The group is looking to answer questions like, “Will the patents and copyrights work for these new technologies or will new laws need to be passed in order to meet the needs of this new technology,” Sandler said.

“We’re looking to see whether the federal and state level have the capacity and the resources to effectively regulate nanotechnology,” he said.

Sandler said the group is also researching workplace safety and environmental impacts. He said the first products of nanotechnology will be in cosmetics and food packaging.

The group hopes the products will contain few negative side effects. According to Sandler, none have been found yet.

“Usually we only recognize the questions after the side effects, but we’re trying to think ahead,” Bosso said. “If you start with the wrong questions, you’re screwed. The biggest concern is we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re just getting our feet on the ground.”

Bosso said he hopes to see products from this research coming out five to ten years from now. At the rate Northeastern is going, he said he does not expect to be disappointed with the progress.

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