Law may give NU big funds for research

Sheila Burt

A nanometer may span only one tenth the width of a human hair, but it’s the focus of a new law President Bush signed last month that will have Northwestern researchers applying for additional funding.

Nanotechnology, the science of controlling matter at the molecular level, received a federal stamp of approval last month when the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act was passed Dec. 3.

The law establishes a federal office for nanotechnology and provides about $3.7 billion for nanotechnology research efforts over the next four years.

“It’s a large federal investment in nanotechnology research and development,” said Heidi Tringe, the communication director for the House Science Committee. “And that investment is going to be spread widely across the university system.”

At NU, one of the leading universities for nanotechnology research, an Institute for Nanotechnology supports approximately 100 researchers working in the field, said Chad Mirkin, director of the institute.

For some nanotechnology researchers, the law brings hope of additional funding for their projects and also represents a commitment by the Bush administration to fund their nanotechnology-related research.

At NU, one of the first universities to establish a nanotechnology institute, researchers easily could see more funding for their projects soon, Mirkin said.

“We are positioned well to compete very effectively for those funds, whereas other schools are just starting to ramp up now,” he said.

But researchers have said they hope the law’s positive effects will extend beyond the realm of increased project funding and will help unite nanotechnology groups.

The law also creates a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office to “serve as a point of contact for outside groups,” according to the House Committee on Science’s analysis of the act.

Tringe said the office will coordinate the different types of research that agencies are conducting to avoid project duplication.

The new law also could increase corporations’ involvement with universities, as nanotechnology focuses on “making better materials out of less material,” said NU engineering Prof. Rodney Ruoff.

“I think that this gives a stamp of long-term commitment from the U.S. government,” Ruoff said.

Tringe said federal investment in research has yielded large economic returns, and she added that some experts believe advances in nanotechnology could create a $1 trillion industry within the next decade.

“In order to reap those benefits, the federal government has to make a significant investment,” Tringe said.

Nanotechnology-based research at NU could affect people’s lives in a variety of ways — from engineering and food packaging to more effective medicine and homeland security.

Mirkin said he believes nanotechnology will “redefine everything we do in science and engineering,” and with this new law, nanotechnology could become a central focus for other research groups.

Engineering Prof. Peter Voorhees said although finding funding often is difficult for many researchers, $3.7 billion “will go a long way funding research that is not being funded now” and might spark more interest in nanotechnology.

Voorhees added that increased funding could allow more undergraduates to participate in nanotechnology research.

Chemistry Prof. Mark Ratner, who also serves as the assistant director of NU’s Institute for Nanotechnology, said he believes an increased interest in nanotechnology will allow scientists to create things that have never been made before in an entirely different way.

“(Nanotechnology) is very much like the industrial revolution,” he said. “It’s a new way of making things.”