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Posted: September 27, 2007
University of Alabama positions itself as nanotechnology leader
(Nanowerk News) It represents a potential answer for the world’s water shortage woes, it’s key in electronic and manufacturing advances, and it holds great promise for better treatments and earlier detection of diseases such as cancer, HIV and Alzheimer’s.
“It” is nanotechnology – the science of the ultra small. And through faculty expertise, recent technology upgrades to the tune of more than $3 million dollars in UA laboratories, and a new cooperative research venture with Imago Scientific Instruments, a world leader in nanotechnology instrumentation, The University of Alabama has positioned itself as a leader in key segments of this revolutionary field.
“Nanoscience is impacting virtually all aspects of society,” said Dr. Judy Bonner, executive vice president and provost at UA. “The University of Alabama’s growing knowledge base in this revolutionary field along with recent state-of-the-art instrument acquisitions enables us, for example, to not only improve manufactured materials, but train the next generation of nanotechnology researchers.”
How small is nano-small? A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. For perspective, a sheet of notebook paper is 100,000 nanometers thick. Or, put another way, it would take a million nanometers to span a grain of sand.
“We’ve built a major research instrumentation center related to nanotechnology,” said Dr. Mike Bersch, director of UA’s Central Analytical Facility, where much of the latest equipment operates. “We want to lead the pack – not be in the pack.”
UA’s latest equipment acquisition in the research of the very small is called a Local Electron Atom Probe, known as a LEAP. Acquired recently from Imago, the highly sophisticated instrument permits UA researchers to determine the position and type of atom in various materials and view the structure in 3-D.
“This is significant,” said Bersch, “because we know – at both the macro- and nano-scales – a material’s properties, such as strength or conductivity, depend upon which atoms are where.”
Under an agreement with Imago, which provides support of nanotechnology research across the U.S., Japan, Europe and Asia, UA and the company’s researchers will work jointly on projects.
“It is clear that future advances in materials science will arise from discoveries at the atomic level, and The University of Alabama’s world-class laboratory resources position the University as a leader in the emerging nano-research fields,” said Emmanuel Lakios, president of Imago.
The University of Alabama is the first academic institution in the Southeast, and only the third in the nation, to obtain Imago’s most advanced probe (the new LEAP Si), according to Imago. There is a fourth LEAP Si at a private U.S. semiconductor company, an Imago company representative said.
“Working at the nano level, and being able to identify the type, location and spatial position of atoms, helps us better engineer materials,” said Dr. Gregory Thompson, assistant professor of metallurgical and materials engineering at UA. “Through the LEAP’s analysis, researchers can better design materials with tailored properties for such applications as transistors used in cell phones, hard drives for computers, or high strength, low-weight steels used for fuel efficient automobiles.”
LEAP, said Bersch, is ideal for studying semiconductors, the base materials used in manufacturing computer chips and other electronic devices. “We believe this is going to be the instrument of choice for semiconductor analysis,” Bersch said. “Corporate America will come to The University of Alabama to formulate partnerships for LEAP-based research,” he predicted.
Additionally, the LEAP will strengthen Alabama’s existing industries, particularly the development of new light-weight, high-strength materials for automobiles. UA researchers are already collaborating with Nucor Steel and Phifer Inc. in this capacity.
UA: A rich history in the research of the ultra small
The LEAP is the latest in a series of recent nanotechnology enhancements at UA. In 2004 and 2005, the University added to the Central Analytical Facility with two state-of-the-art instruments, a Transmission Electron Microscope and a focused ion beam. In addition, in the fall of 2006, a Transmission Electron Microscope was installed in UA’s Biology Building.
Thompson and Dr. Mark Weaver, also a metallurgical and materials engineering professor, and Dr. Harriett Smith-Somerville, professor of biological sciences, were lead investigators on interdisciplinary, team proposals which won National Science Foundation instrumentation grants contributing to these technology advancements. This group, combined, landed more than $2.4 million in competitive awards.
Numerous UA faculty members have already designed experiments that use the new atom probe to conduct research in magnetic thin films and nanoparticles for computer hard drives, thermal barrier coatings for aircraft engines, and hydrogen fuel cells for next-generation automobiles.
While UA’s foray into nanotechnology-driven research such as fuel cells as an alternative to gasoline powered vehicles, and embedding medicines within nano-sized particles to be implanted directly within diseased cells, is relatively new, the University has a rich history in research of the ultra small.
UA’s Center for Materials for Information Technology, or MINT, has a sparkling 17-year history excelling in nanotechnology-related research. This multi-disciplinary research program, which focuses on information storage, was the first in the South to be designated as a National Science Foundation Materials Research and Science and Engineering Center when it achieved that highly sought designation in 1994. MINT has won three such awards from NSF. The latest funding, awarded in 2002, was for $6 million to be distributed annually through 2008. MINT’s corporate sponsors include Sony, IBM, Seagate, Western Digital, Maxell and Fujitsu.
Imago Scientific Instruments Corp. is the recognized world leader in Atom Probe Tomography, providing analytical solutions for manufacturers, engineers and scientists involved in the nanotechnology revolution. The Company’s technology and products provide sub-nanometer element mapping of microelectronic devices and materials. Imago is committed to the sustained advancement of nanotechnology solutions specifically addressed to metrology and analysis challenges in the semiconductor, data-storage and advanced-materials markets. Imago provides worldwide customer support from locations in the United States, Japan, Europe, and Asia Pacific.
The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is in the midst of planned, steady enrollment growth with a goal of reaching 28,000 students by 2010. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.