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Northeastern secures state grant to lead cutting-edge nanomaterial, smart sensor research and development

Northeastern University is receiving a $3 million state grant to lead a university-industry partnership focused on developing smart sensors and nanomaterials to be used for a range of medical, defense, and energy applications.

President Joseph E. Aoun joined Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker at the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security on Tuesday at an event announcing the grant, which will establish the Advanced Nanomanufacturing Cluster for Smart Sensors and Materials, or ANSSeM, that comprises research universities and private manufacturing companies.

The initiative will leverage Northeastern’s innovative Nanoscale Offset Printing System, or NanoOPS, a manufacturing technology pioneered by the university’s Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing and housed at the Kostas Research Center in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Unveiled in September 2014, NanoOPS can print nanoscale sensors and devices as small as 20 nanometers—more than 1,000 times thinner than a human hair—on a variety of surfaces, and 100 to 1,000 times faster than current inkjet-based electronic and 3-D printing.

The possibilities are ‘enormous’

Speakers at Tuesday’s event noted the vast potential for nanomaterials to advance connected technologies—known as the Internet of Things—and revolutionize the sensing industry. This includes potential commercial applications such as high-precision sensors used to monitor premature babies in hospital neonatal units, devices that track water quality, and wearable devices that monitor biometric data.

University Distinguished Professor Ahmed Busnaina, CHN’s director and the William Lincoln Smith Chair in the College of Engineering, said part of the new funding will be used to purchase equipment at the Kostas Research Institute for materials characterization and testing smart sensor prototypes, and to bring two new NanoOPS with enhanced capabilities to the institute. He said the current NanoOPS prints on plastics, but the next-generation NanoOPS “will be able to print on any surface.”

“The possibilities here are enormous,” added Baker, noting the consortium’s role in continuing to drive innovation and workforce and economic development in the commonwealth. He thanked Northeastern “for its leadership across a wide variety of fields.” He added, “We’re very happy to be partnering with you.”

The state grant comes from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant Program, and is being matched by nearly $11 million in outside funds through this partnership between academia, industry, and government.

At right, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, and University Distinguished Professor Ahmed Busnaina talk while standing in the NanoOPS lab at the Kostas Research Institute. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

At right, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun, and University Distinguished Professor Ahmed Busnaina talk while standing in the NanoOPS lab at the Kostas Research Institute. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Building on research strengths

Northeastern’s Kostas Research Institute is a secure, state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2011 and was funded by a $12 million investment from alumnus George J. Kostas, E’43, H’07.

“We are focused here on security research,” Aoun said on Tuesday, referring to the mission of the Kostas Research Center, ranging from resilient and sustainable systems to cybersecurity to nanomanufacturing. Aoun added that within the past three years, Northeastern has received approximately $100 million in support for security research, complementing the university’s other focus areas of health and sustainability.

The president went on to praise Baker for his research interests, particularly noting a previous trip to the university’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, and saying “He probes, he goes deeply into the issue, and he gets it right away.”

The power of partnerships

Shawn Williams, vice president of research and development with Rogers Corporation, noted the strength of Northeastern’s industry partnerships. “More than two years ago, we decided to create a new corporate research center here at the Kostas Research Institute. We wanted that fresh perspective, and I think as evidenced in our conversation and in our event here today, we picked the right partner in Northeastern.”

The cluster’s academic partners comprise Northeastern, Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Corporate partners include Rogers Corporation, which has its research headquarters at the Kostas Research Institute; Milara, a Massachusetts-based manufacturer of specialize equipment for the semiconductor industry and that built NanoOPS; and General Electric, Raytheon, HC Starck, and GloTech/OptoGlo.

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