The Center For Nanofabrication and Molecular Self-Assembly, one of the first federally and privately funded nanotechnology facilities in the United States, houses the Institute for Nanotechnology, the umbrella organization that encompasses the University's nanoscience enterprise.

Photo by Bill Arsenault

Northwestern’s Nanoscience Nerve Center
Not long after President Clinton announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative in January 2000 to speed up nanotechnology research and development in the United States, Northwestern broke ground on the Evanston campus just south of the Technological Institute for one of the first federally funded nanotechnology facilities in the country.

The $34 million Center for Nanofabrication and Molecular Self-Assembly, anchored by $14 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, opened this fall. It provides researchers with the specialty laboratories and instrumentation they need to assemble molecules into complex materials, including smaller electronic circuits, inexpensive solar cells, artificial tissue and bone materials, and photonic devices.

“Nanotechnology is an area that is going to play an enormous role in science and engineering over the next century,” says Chad Mirkin, George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry. “To continue as a leader in this area, we needed a physical nucleus for our research, a state-of-the-art facility that provides a focal point for innovative collaborative research and the exchange of ideas.”

The four-story building is specially designed, sitting on a special concrete slab to reduce vibrations when using sensitive equipment, such as lasers and atomic force microscopes. “When working on this small scale, walking or talking can send a microscope tip great distances,” says Mirkin.

The Institute for Nanotechnology, directed by Mirkin, has its offices in the new center. The institute is an umbrella organization providing intellectual and administrative support and specialized equipment for the multimillion-dollar nanotechnology research efforts at Northwestern. Mirkin’s mission is to bring together individuals and research groups with similar interests to solve key problems in nanotechnology and to attract large research grants to fund the work.

A perfect example is the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Integrated Nanopatterning and Detection Technologies, funded by the National Science Foundation. Established in September 2001, the NSEC is one of only six such centers in the country and brings together recognized leaders in nanotechnology from Northwestern, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Argonne National Laboratory.

Among other breakthroughs, NSEC research could lead to devices able to detect minute quantities of biological and chemical hazards in homes and offices and to provide an inexpensive and portable means of detecting contaminated food and drinking water.

The NSEC is also committed to outreach, including one project with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry to develop an exhibit explaining nanotechnology and the center’s activities. Also, undergraduates from around the country can research nanotechnology during the summer at Northwestern. (The first group came to campus this past summer.) And a partnership between Northwestern and Harold Washington College in Chicago offers a two-part program for high school science teachers that combines hands-on research with curriculum development.

Mirkin and his colleagues plan on creating additional centers, each with a different focus depending on faculty expertise. “It’s like putting together a business,” says Mirkin. “Northwestern got a fast start in nanotechnology, but it’s important for us to continue building the enterprise if we want to maintain our position as the leader in this field.” — M.F.

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