UI receives $2 million nanotechnology grant

By Andy Kwalwaser

The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology will be getting the liquid atomic microscope that is on its wish list.

Earlier this month, local U.S. House Rep. Tim Johnson announced a $2 million federal grant to equip the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, 208 N. Wright St., Urbana. The federal grant comes three years after an $18 million state grant expanded lab space at the facility.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials at the atomic level. The new equipment will be used in research across several colleges and majors, including engineering, architecture and biology.

“These initiatives are creating opportunities and interactions among faculty across several colleges, which was not possible before,” said Dr. Irfan Ahmad, associate director at the center.

University researchers are taking a multidisciplinary approach to nanotechnology, with scientists in different colleges working on the same projects. The University is also collaborating with other institutions, from Washington University in St. Louis to the University of Karachi in Pakistan.

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Nanotechnology offers a spectrum of research possibilities, but it is also expensive. Individual lab machines can cost upward of $1 million. Ahmad said researchers have a catchphrase: “Nanotechnology, megadollars.”

Researchers sometimes find themselves hard pressed for funds because nanotechnology research is not concentrated at a single institute at the University, Ahmad said. Projects using similar technology may receive individual funding from different sources.

The Air Force and military backed the federal grant for University with the hopes that it will lead to new biomedical resources.

“We’ll be developing techniques which would address issues like brain trauma and other battlefield injuries prevalent with returning soldiers,” Ahmad said.

Nanotechnology research is also occurring in other medical fields, including the treatment of cancer and diabetes.

“The vision is to integrate biological and nanotechnology,” said Professor Ilesanmi Adesida, director of the center.

Researchers are exploring ways in which nanotechnology can benefit diabetes patients by implanting tiny microchips in cells to collect data currently gathered by drawing blood.

Nanotechnology sciences have expanded rapidly in the last two decades. Still, researchers caution that many nanotechnology projects may not be realized for at least 15 years.

“The challenge for researchers is to temper expectations,” Ahmad said. “You do not want to over promise and under deliver.”