The transfer of nanoscience into useful technology cannot be realized until experts understand how best to assemble and connect trillions of nanoelements, while also preventing failures and avoiding defects.
As sizes shrink to the nanoscale, conventional fabrication techniques reach their limits. To fashion methods for mass production of nanoproducts or materials, professors, researchers and students must coax nanoparticles and nanotubes into precise positions and orientations using nontraditional techniques.
Our newly-created processes can produce economical ways to create products with uniform patterns are structures. These processes can create miniature devices and sensors that can be used in a variety of applications. Nanotubes, for example, have superior electrical properties and are 100 times stronger than steel but only one-sixth its weight.
At Northeastern, researchers have access to a state-of-the-art facility. Outfitted with a comprehensive slate of up-to-date equipment for fabrication, imaging, and testing, the facility also includes space specifically designed for graduate and undergraduate research, to help train the nanoscientists of tomorrow and while also conducting research with industrial partners.
CHN research is divided into four categories.
The CHN is one of many research programs at Northeastern. At the university level, Northeastern had approximately $112 million in externally-funded research in 2014. This is double the amount from five years earlier.
Applications & Products
To demonstrate the commercial application and usefulness of the nano templates, as well as the wide range of possible products, CHN is developing sensors and other practical devices. In developing these products, the CHN works closely with partner companies, a step that is vital to manufacturing success and product realization.
One product is a carbon nanotube-based memory chip, a nonvolatile memory device with extremely higher density than silicon chips. Currently, carbon nanotube (CNT) switches must be made from belts of nanotubes. Manufacture via our template will allow the fabrication of a single CNT electromechanical switch. The center’s partner in this endeavor is Nantero, the first company to manufacture CNT computer memory chips.
Another testbed is a biosensor for rapid (under five minutes) detection of antibody molecules, requiring only a small sample. The nanotemplate, a functionalized nanopatterned polymer surface, would create a sensor that would bind with specific amino acid sequences, allowing for detection of the presence of these molecules.
In order to make commercially viable products, nanomanufacturing will require specialized equipment, systems, and processes. High-rate refers to making things quickly and efficiently.
The CHN carries out research on many of the steps that are part of the product assembly process.
The first involves the development of templates to be used as tooling for an economically realistic production process. Our processes are designed to allow companies to assemble nano-building blocks over large areas in high-rate, scalable, commercially viable processes. The center is also working on the synthesis of single-wall nanotubes with the desired size, functionality, and solubility for high-rate manufacturing. Chemical guides are being developed for self-alignment and registration.
The second component of our research involves the vital issues of reliability and failure. CHN is addressing three related functions: preventing failure, removing defects, and developing fault tolerance and self-repair. Among the challenges the center faces are selectively removing impurities and being able to clean nanostructures without destroying them. CHN researchers have also designed and fabricated innovative MEMs based devices that can characterize nanowires, nanotubes, nanorods, and nanofibers.
Nanoscience and nanomanufacturing are poised to create an exciting future, but some pressing additional questions still need to be answered. In addition to its technical research, CHN is unique in its active and ongoing assessment of environmental, economic, regulatory, and ethical impacts of nanomanufacturing.
Aware of the potential hazards in their nanomanufacturing work, CHN researchers are developing environmentally benign processes and products. Green engineering and sustainability concepts are being incorporated in the center’s ongoing work. CHN is gathering data, the first of its kind, on workplace and environmental exposures, baseline health indicators, and possible health problems of workers involved in developing this new technology
Regulatory & Ethical Issues
Technological revolutions produce predictable and less predictable consequences for society at large. Developments in nanotechnology and nanomanufacturing likely happen more rapidly and across more sectors than can be reasonably anticipated by government institutions. As a result, key federal, state and local policies and regulations may lag or be inadequate.
CHN researchers are keenly aware of the challenge of balancing technological innovation and economic development with the protection of public health and the environment. One way we explore these issues is through our partnership with researchers affiliated with the Nanotechnology and Society Research Group (NSRG). This group is dedicated to the study of the societal dimensions of nanotechnology research, development, application, and commercialization. Comprised of the research faculty at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, this multidisciplinary group also serves as a partner with the Boston Museum of Science on an array of related outreach and education activities.