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Columbia Named a National Nanoscale Research Center Receives $10.8 M to Support Research

By Suzanne Trimel

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) on Wednesday (Sept. 19, 2001) announced awards for national nanoscale research centers at six major research universities, including Columbia. These centers aim to advance the development of ultra-small technology that holds the promise of transforming electronics, manufacturing, medicine, materials, environmental, information and many other technologies. The NSF awarded Columbia $10.8 million for five years to support the work of 16 primary researchers in the Center for Electronic Transport in Molecular Nanostructures, led by Professors Ronald Breslow and Horst Stormer, the scientific directors, and Professor James Yardley, managing director.

"With its nanoscale science and engineering initiative, the National Science Foundation is enabling the coming wave of research," said Mihail Roco, head of the NSF initiative and chair of the National Science and Technology Council's subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology in an announcement from Washington, D.C. "Each of the six centers has a bold vision for research at the frontiers of science and technology, and together they will provide coherence and a longer term outlook to U.S. nanotechnology research and education."

The other centers will be located at Cornell, Harvard, Northwestern and Rice universities and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Pioneers in nanoscience and nanoengineering at Columbia and elsewhere are gaining unprecedented understanding and control over the fundamental building blocks of all physical things. Advances in this field are expected to revolutionize the way almost everything – from vaccines to computers to automobile tires – are designed and made.

For example, scientists have theorized that nanoscale research could advance information technology to the point that the entire Library of Congress might be stored on a device the size of a sugar cube, or allow doctors to implant nanoscale probes in the human body that can reveal what happens on the scale of a single molecule and help in diagnosing disease and delivering drugs.

At Columbia, the NSF grant will support a multi-disciplinary group of researchers participating in research at the Center for Electronic Transport in Molecular Nanostructures. These physicists, chemists, materials scientists, engineers and others from the University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences include Nobel Prize winning physicist Horst Stormer and Ronald Breslow, the National Medal of Science winner and pioneer of the field of biominetic chemistry.

In addition to the development of key partnerships with industry, national laboratories and other sectors, the centers are expected to support education programs from secondary schools to the graduate level. Columbia will collaborate on the research with the City University of New York, Barnard College and Rowan University in New Jersey, and with scientists at national laboratories and IBM and Bell Lucent laboratories. The program also will engage high school students in collaboration with the CUNY and will mentor undergraduates and graduates through special summer programs and others during the academic year.

Last spring, Columbia Executive Vice Provost Michael Crow announced the launch of a major initiative by the University to cultivate and promote multidisciplinary nanoscience research linking biology, chemistry, engineering, physics, materials science and medicine. To date, more than 50 Columbia researchers in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Health Sciences, and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, are involved in this field of research.

"Columbia scientists are now pushing the frontier of nanoscale research in the simulation and computation of biological and inorganic materials; the synthesis and characterization of nanocrystals, nanotubes, and low-dimensional structures, and the fabrication of small biological machines that function and can "see" and move matter through a variety of microscopic methods," said Crow. "Columbia enjoys strong nanoscale research programs in our engineering and medical schools and our Arts and Sciences faculty but that is not enough. The Columbia community must also build stronger bridges among its disciplines in these schools to compete effectively with other universities in the race for new discoveries."

Under the direction of Dr. Kelly Kirkpatrick, formerly a policy analyst who helped create the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the Clinton White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Columbia nanotechnology initiative goals are to cultivate and promote multidisciplinary research teams, build collaborations with industry, national laboratories, other university and key industry players, develop Columbia's capabilities to understand where industry is going in nanotechnology and what discoveries can be brought to the marketplace and understand the implications of nanotechnology for society.

"One of Columbia's key goals is to build a strong and diversified faculty-driven foundation in nanotechnology research and education," said Kirkpatrick. "Columbia is committed to producing the best and brightest researchers, making cutting-edge discoveries, and developing effective modes of technology transfer, all to benefit society."

Professor Yardley, a chemical engineer, says researchers at the Center for Electronic Transport and Molecular Nanostructures are working to understand in a fundamental way how electrons move through molecules and through structures of molecules on the scale of a nanometer -- a billionth of a meter. Their work has major implications in the field of electronics. "Nanotechnology should be able to move electronics into a totally different era of size and shape and speed, totally beyond anything we have imagined so far," said Yardley. "In terms of information processing, this could result in much, much faster rates."

The invention about 15 years ago of an atomic force microscope allowed scientists to look at things on a scale of less than an atom, leading to the nanoscale discipline. "As scientists have learned to look at molecules and atoms at this scale," said Yardley. "They have also learned to move them around. We can now manipulate atoms and molecules in a way that we simple couldn't five years ago."

Yardley sees the potential advancements in nanoscale research concerning electronic computing in the context of a race against time. "Fundamental laws of physics will limit what you can achieve with silicon crystals," he said, noting that this upper limit may be reached within a decade. "By studying how electrons move in molecules, we can build devices that will transcend what we can do with conventional semiconductor electronics. Nanotechnology in principle offers the capability of allowing us to make the transition from silicon crystals to a new technology which will let you continue to increase the speed and complexity of the calculations and manipulations of data that you can do."

Yardley says semi-conductor physicists have gradually been shrinking the size of the components with which they deal. "Today, they are operating at a hundred billionth of a meter," he said. "You can easily see how the fabrication capability of semi-conductors can be pushed toward smaller and smaller scales."

Two other Columbia research centers are actively involved in the development of nanoscale technologies: the Environmental Molecular Science Institute directed by Professor George Flynn and the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, directed by Professor Irving Herman.

Published: Sep 19, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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