NU asked by NASA to perform research

Sarah Warning

Nanotechnology and NASA are ready for takeoff at Northwestern, as the university is part of two new nanotechnology research institutes funded by the government agency.

Leaders of NU groups for the two programs said the university will receive $1 million annually for each of the two NASA institutes — and could receive as much as $20 million over 10 years.

The money will fund nanotechnology research to develop new materials for improving spacecraft and aircraft. A large portion of the grant also will fund education initiatives to educate undergraduate students and NASA personnel about nanotechnology.

NU is part of NASA’s Institute for Biologically Inspired Materials and Institute for Nanoelectronics and Computing.

“This is NASA’s new vision for interacting closely with universities and research organizations,” said Rod Ruoff, professor of mechanical engineering and leader of the NU BIMat team.

Institutions teamed up to apply for a place in NASA’s seven new University Research, Engineering and Technology institutes. The team, including NU, won the position in September from about 60 to 70 competitors, Ruoff said.

NASA annually will provide $3 million to each of the seven new institutes dedicated to research collaboration in the field of nanotechnology. Each institute has about six members, and funds are divided among member universities and research centers according to facilities and researchers working at each institution.

The grants will continue for five years. Then NASA will evaluate the effectiveness of each institute. If things go well, the grants will continue for another five years, Ruoff said.

After 10 years, the institutions are expected to be self-sufficient.

Even so, 10 years of funding is a substantial and welcome deviation from the normal chunks of funding individual researchers get on a much more short-term basis, Ruoff said.

“Having a long-range center to plan and impart testing is very important, especially with the economy these days,” he said. “In this short-term economy, everyone expects short-term gains, so nobody wants to fund research.”

The education programs will include lectures, and an online course eventually will be available to anyone, said Tobin Marks, an NU chemistry professor and member of the leadership council for the Institute for Nanoelectronics and Computing.

Summer programs also will be part of the initiative, Marks said.

“We want to start having summer programs to involve students in research,” he said.

According to Marks, students might begin seeing lectures within a year, but an online course won’t be ready for another two or three years.

The timing is right for education initiatives, said Wenhao Liu, a Weinberg sophomore who works in NU’s new Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Self-Assembly.

“The foundation (for nanotechnology) is being laid right now,” Liu said.

Education is important because scientists believe nanotechnology can solve many of the problems facing aeronautics today, Ruoff said. For instance, new nanomaterials could make airplanes lighter and stronger while decreasing fuel consumption and noise pollution, he said.

Nanotechnology should impact electronics, which will be useful in the construction of new aircraft and spacecraft, Marks said.

These electronics also could help bring about a “digital airspace,” which officials believe will help alleviate air traffic congestion in specific areas, Ruoff said.

Although the grant ultimately should benefit NASA, NU could benefit financially if materials for improving aircraft interest manufacturers.