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From the ground up

Nanotechnology is a huge field. When I worked at a nanomaterials start-up my dad would often ask me about developments in nanomedicine and I had no clue what to say.

Nanotechnology enables new applications in medicine, electronics, materials — pretty much anything you can imagine.

But, fundamentally, it’s pretty simple: It’s about making things so small that they can have an enormous impact. That could mean making drugs that are able to penetrate the cell membrane to kill cancer from within or it could mean miniaturizing the most expensive components in today’s smart phones and PCs.

Northeastern’s Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN) initially set out to enable nano-scale manufacturing — “how do you make things very, very small, and assemble them in a fast way over a large area?” asked the center’s director, Ahmed Busnaina. Lately, though, they’ve been focusing on enabling a new manufacturing system altogether.

The typical nanoelectronic fabrication facility today costs $5-$10Billion. CHN’s technology cuts that number down 100 fold.

“But that’s not the biggest impact,” says Busnaina. “If you make nanomanufacturing accessible and affordable, it would unleash a wave of innovation.” That’s because once nanomanufacturing is universally cheap, easy, and efficient, the field is no longer about competition but rather about making anything anyone can imagine.

So, how do they do it? Why is it so cheap? For one thing, the CHN technique is based on simple, liquid-based chemistry. It requires no vacuum pumps or extremely high temperatures (we’re talking in the thousands of degrees, celsius). Also, while standard techniques require both the addition and removal of material, here it’s all about addition — eliminating 50% of the process.

The team uses “directed assembly” to force nanoparticles into position on a template. For example, the template may consist of hydrophobic (water “fearing”) and hydrophilic (water “loving”) areas which direct molecules of either affinity to their proper place. The template could be in the shape of a microchip or a simple column small enough to fit through the cell membrane.

CHN, a collaboration between Northeastern, UMass Lowell, University of New Hampshire, and Michigan State University,  is a Center of Excellence funded by the National Science Foundation.

Photo courtesy of Jason Chiota, 2009