Jul 21, 2008
NC maps out its nanotechnology future
Back in the spring of 2005, North Carolina, US, put together a task force to advance nanotechnology-based economic activity in the region. The state's roadmap approach builds on the success of its Research Triangle Park and is now helping to shape the Piedmont Triad into a major high-tech hub. nanotechweb.org interviews John Hardin of the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology to get the inside view on what the state has to offer when it comes to working at the nanoscale.
What makes nanotechnology a good match for North Carolina?
First, the state has a strong, well-regarded higher education system. It has 16 public universities in the University of North Carolina system, 59 public community colleges in the North Carolina Community College System and 36 independent private colleges and universities. These universities and colleges are distributed widely across the entire state and six boast high or very high research activity. As a result, North Carolina ranks 10th nationally and well above the US average in academic research intensity, as measured by R&D as a share of gross state product (National Science Board, 2008).
Second, North Carolina has established strengths in enabling technology industries, such as biotechnology and information technology. With more than 450 bioscience companies, North Carolina has the nation's third largest biotechnology industry (North Carolina Biotechnology Center, 2008). And with more than 7200 companies in the information and communications technologies sector, North Carolina ranks in the top-15 nationally, in terms of information technology professionals (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, 2007).
Finally, North Carolina has a strong manufacturing base. North Carolina is the seventh largest state for manufacturing, as measured by the percent of total state gross domestic product (North Carolina Chamber, 2008). Many of its manufacturing industries – such as architectural and structural metals, chemicals and plastics, motor vehicle parts, ship and boat building, and aerospace products and parts – are enjoying positive growth and are predicted to benefit greatly from nanotechnology.
How do the Research Triangle Park and the Piedmont Triad fit into the picture?
As in most states, North Carolina's nanotechnology activities currently are concentrated primarily in metropolitan regions. The Research Triangle has the most activity, with about two-thirds of the more than 60 companies and 30 university research centers working with nanotechnology. Universities such as Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State drive the academic activity in the Triangle and also support and benefit from the work of its companies.
In the Piedmont Triad region, universities such as NC A&T, UNC Greensboro and Wake Forest contribute a sizable share of our state's nanotechnology R&D and collaborate with several companies in the area. And UNC Charlotte has an active and growing nanotechnology R&D portfolio that is spurring both academic and commercial activity in its region.
The plan is that this regionally concentrated pattern will diffuse across the state as nanotechnology becomes an increasingly common and essential component of academic and industry activities.
What facilities are available to researchers, start-ups and big business?
Perhaps the best known is the Triangle National Lithography Center (TNLC) at North Carolina State University, a state-of-the-art, multimillion dollar facility, jointly founded by UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State. As one of 13 public user laboratories that make up the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, the TLNC is home to a 193 nm scanner lithography tool, the premier tool for advanced optical lithography in the nation and the only one available for public use. Optical lithography is a process used to create microelectronic circuits and optical devices on the nanoscale level. The TNLC's public user facility is a very attractive site for researchers in both the public and private sector.
NC State is also home to the Analytical Instrumentation Facility, which provides users with access to microscopy and microanalysis instrumentation and professional staff, as well as the Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center, which has unique state-of-the-art capabilities for product development, analytical services and materials testing, analysis, and evaluation to address the needs of the non-wovens textile industry.
North Carolina A&T State University has the Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures, a cross-disciplinary center that transcends departmental, institutional, industrial and governmental barriers and integrates research and education in the field of smart and advanced materials. The center recently partnered with nCoat – a North Carolina company using nanotechnology to enhance coatings for machines and materials – to help it in the areas of advanced composites, carbon nanotubes, nano-enhanced coatings and metallic degradation from extreme thermal and chemical environments.
What are some of the success stories so far?
The 75 acre south campus of the research park will act as a central portal for nanotechnology and nanoscience in the region.
The list is long, but two are most notable. In terms of infrastructure, UNC Greensboro and NC A&T State University are teaming up with the Greensboro business community to establish a groundbreaking graduate program in nanoscience and nanoengineering. The Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN) will be housed at the Gateway University Research Park near both universities. The 75 acre south campus of the research park will act as a central portal for nanotechnology and nanoscience in the region by connecting researchers, businesses, students and community members. The first Professional Masters students are expected to enroll in the fall of 2008, and the first PhD students in fall of 2009. James G Ryan, a professor and administrator at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering of the University at Albany, was recently chosen to be the founding dean of the JSSN.
Similarly, UNC-Charlotte recently established a Nanoscale Science Engineering PhD Program, which prepares students to compete effectively for positions in academic, industrial or government lab settings.
On the industry front, Nextreme Thermal Solutions, a Research Triangle-based company, has had significant successes. It manufactures microscale thermal and power management products to overcome thermal and power constraints in electronics for the semiconductor, photonics, consumer, automotive and defense/aerospace industries. In March, Nextreme was awarded a seminal patent in a type of nanotechnology that has the potential to significantly impact energy conservation and thermal management. In that same month Nextreme was awarded Product of the Year award from Electronic Products Magazine for its miniature, thin-film embedded thermoelectric component (eTEC™) technology.
Looking ahead, what's in the pipeline?
During the next year we will work on plans to convene the first annual North Carolina Nanotechnology Symposium, building on the success of the NC Nanotech conferences in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The goals are to broaden awareness regarding North Carolina's nanotechnology activities, expertise and opportunities; provide a venue where representatives from sectors across the state can network and exchange information and ideas related nanotechnology; and serve as a launching point for collaborative relationships related to nanotechnology.
• To find out more about what the state has to offer, visit www.ncnanotechnology.com.
STOP PRESS: NC A&T awarded NSF Engineering Research Center
About the author
James Tyrrell is editor of nanotechweb.org.