Since President Bill Clinton announced "a major new national nanotechnology initiative" in 2000, researchers at Virginia Tech have made important advancements, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors learned at its Sunday afternoon meeting.

A nanometer is about the size of 10 atoms. Nano-scale materials offer new or enhanced mechanical, electronic, magnetic, optical, solubility, and spatial resolution properties. "Scientists are following nature's example in assembly of materials atom by atom. It's very efficient," says Robert Porter, research program development manager and Virginia Tech's representative on the steering committee of the statewide nanotechnology initiative, INanoVa. An oft cited example of the potential of nanotechnology, including by President Clinton, is replacing the capacity of today's room-sized supercomputers with a molecular device the size of a sugar cube.

However, the fact that materials behave differently at the molecular and sub-molecular level than they do in bulk means that many applications will come only after basic research to understand and predict the properties and functions of nano-scale materials and devices.

Materials Science and Engineering Department Head David Clark and Physics Department Chair John Ficenec told the board that, having received significant funding and begun work in such fields as biomedicine, electronics, and materials, the university's nanotechnology initiative is being "ramped up."

"Our goal is to position Virginia Tech to compete for multi-million dollar grants," Clark said. He told the board of visitors that the focus for nanotechnology research at Virginia Tech is biomedicine, defense and homeland security, electronics and information technology, and energy and environment applications.

"The university has a solid foundation and a significant portion of the science and engineering faculty oriented to the nanotechnology revolution," Ficenec said. "We have made significant contributions. Now, with searches underway in the Colleges of Engineering and Sciences for 12 additional faculty members who will be doing nanoscience and technology research, Virginia Tech is well-positioned to be a leader in nanotechnology."

Virginia Tech chemistry professor Harry Dorn is a nanoscience pioneer. When a new form of carbon, a hollow molecule named after architect Buckminster Fuller, was discovered in the 1986, Dorn and other scientists worldwide began to try to put atoms inside of it. In 1999, Dorn reported in Nature that he and his post doctoral fellow, Steven Stevenson, had discovered a method for inserting metal atoms inside of fullerenes, creating a novel family of molecules and the architecture for a new field of chemistry. Since 1999, Dorn has received more than $435,000 in research funding -- $222,000 from NASA, and his filled fullerenes are now being developed by Luna nanoMaterials of Blacksburg as improved MRI reagents. The next goal for scientist around the world was to enable fullerenes to travel through the blood stream. Last year, Dorn's Ph.D. student, Erick B. Iezzi, of Jeannette, Pa., developed the first organic derivative of a fullerene. He figured out how to attach an organic group to the carbon molecule, bringing fullerenes a step closer to biological applications, such as the delivery of medicine or radioactive material to a disease site. Iezzi received a $20,000 Graduate Fellowship from the American Chemical Society to continue his work.

Chemistry Associate Professor Karen Brewer and her students are also creating new molecules, called supramolecular polymetallic complexes, to be light absorbers, molecular devices, catalysts for reduction of carbon dioxide (artificial photosynthesis), and as anticancer agents. They have demonstrated a new molecule that can be signaled to bind to target DNA and stop replication. The complex does not become toxic until it receives a light signal.

In 1996, the Virginia Tech Research Division anticipated the national initiative by providing $25,000 in seed money for Geological Sciences Professor Michael Hochella and an interdisciplinary team to study microbe-mineral interactions. Ph.D. student Steven Lower built an enhancement of the atomic force microscope that allowed the researchers to discover an attraction between microbes and minerals. This first evidence of recognition between a living organism and an inanimate object was reported in Science, Lower became a faculty member at the University of Maryland, other students in the group began to receive National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellowships, and external funding began. In 2000, the group received $386,000 from the Department of Energy (DOE) to study microbe-mineral interactions, and an additional $437,292 in 2002. In 2001, the group received a million-dollar NSF grant to study nano-scale processes in the environment.

One of the first Virginia Tech researchers to receive significant federal research for nanotechnology also predated the national initiative announcement. In 1998, Electrical Engineering Professor Rick Claus, director of the Fiber and Electro-Optics Research Center (FEORC), received $9.6 million over five years from the Naval Research Lab to focus on microelectronics, high-speed communication waveguide devices, and nanostructured materials. A self-assembly process developed at FEORC for creating nano-scale thin films at room temperature has resulted in the spin-off company, Nanosonic, Inc. of Blacksburg, which has subsequently invested in research throughout the university. Products include sensors and electronics and communications enhancements. The company also produces an educational kit for middle and high school students, which was shared with board members at the Sunday meeting.

Since 2000, several significant NSF grants have been awarded for nanotechnology research at Virginia Tech, including a series of awards to Materials Sciences and Engineering Assistant Professor Sean Corcoran to study nanoporous metals; $520,000 to Chemistry Professor William Ducker for research instrumentation to study nanometer-scale modifications of electrodes; a $100,000 Nanoscale Exploratory Research (NER) grant to Associate Professor of Physics Randy Heflin and Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Kevin Van Cott to focus on a new concept for detecting DNA and a $91,000 NER grant to Associate Professor of Inorganic Chemistry Gordon Yee to develop a new strategy for the production of molecule-based nanomagnets; a grant to Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Sanjay Raman to develop multifunctional wireless sensory microsystems; a grant to Chemistry Professor Judy Riffle for magnetic nanoparticle complexes that she and her team are developing for delivery of therapy within the body; an award to Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Sandeep Shukla to use models to evaluate the reliability of defect tolerant architectures for nanotechnology; $232,200 to Materials Engineering Professor Diana Farkas to study the impurity effects on structure and deformation behavior of nano-crystalline materials; and $270,000 to Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Ravi Saraf to develop a nanodevice for imaging and sensing normal stress distribution.

Clark told the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors that the benefits that accrue to the university as a result of leadership in nanotechnology research include national and international prestige; enhanced ability to recruit outstanding faculty members; more applications from doctoral students wanting to study nanoscience and technology and affiliated fields; more research funding, which supports students, pays for equipment, and provides overhead for university research space, including labs where undergraduate and graduate students gain experience; new knowledge for the scientific community, education, and public use; and intellectual properties that offer the potential of technology transfer, spin off businesses, new products, and reinvestment in research.

"Nanotechnology is the next scientific epoch. Its impact will be pervasive. We are on the cusp of a new age," Porter said.

Contact for more information about nanotechnology research at Virginia Tech:

David Clark, (540) 231-6640, dclark@vt.edu

John Ficenec, (540) 231-7890, jficenec@vt.edu

Robert Porter, (540) 231-6747, reporter@vt.edu

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