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Past economic activity in the Rust Belt formed a significant part of America's industrial economy. When globalization threatened that economy, the region suffered without hopes for recovery until the proliferation of material sciences. Nanotechnology is credited for driving growth, workforce development and prosperity back into America's most economically depressed areas.
October 14th, 2009
Rebuilding the Rust Belt with Material Sciences
For decades, America's Rust Belt, which is broadly defined as the region between the BosWash corridor and eastern Wisconsin, represented a robust economic activity from heavy industry and manufacturing, most notably from the automobile industry.
Globalization proved a powerful force that accelerated change in the world economy over the past half-century, affecting dramatic change in the U.S. car industry. The Rust Belt was caught in a maelstrom of de-industrialization resulting in a shrinking populace and urban centers, whose foundations were forged from authority steel, glass and rubber, slowly corroded.
A new crossroad in history over the last decade has presented changes in the industrial mix and a diversification of economies for the region.
Nanotechnology, which enables control of the material world at the scale of atoms and molecules, is changing the face of the Rust Belt and restoring some long-gone luster to the traditional materials businesses. Industrial goods, from coatings to lubricants, are bringing activities and investment back to Rust Belt cities.
Nanotechnology companies are uncharacteristic in the face of technology start-ups. They are typically founded by researchers as university spinouts. It's also noted that many of the hottest nanotechnology companies are not in the usual east and west coast tech hubs, but spread throughout the country, which now includes the Rust Belt region.
Because nanotechnology receives the bulk of its investment from government funding, rather than private funding, nanotech companies are not remanded to geographic areas designated by venture capitalists. As well, nanotechnology companies draw from a broad talent pool, ranging anywhere from authorities in new textiles to defense contractors, which can be found in areas across the U.S., including the Rust Belt.
The region is much more than abandoned houses and shuttered manufacturing plants.
Northeastern Ohio is now referred to as "Polymer Valley." The area is home to such organizations as Goodyear, Firestone, Sherwin-Williams and a number of auto-parts makers and is a hub of expertise in materials research.
University of Michigan is undertaking a construction campaign budgeted at $2.5 billion, ranking it among the largest university building programs in the United States. This project, which includes nine major buildings for science, medicine, health, art, business, sports, food service and student housing, falls on the heels of 10 completed buildings for biomedical research, cardiovascular treatment, science, technology, engineering, public health, public policy and drama.
In Indiana, enrolments at Ivy Tech, Indiana's system of community colleges, is up; a new training centre in Warsaw is teaching numerical control skills needed in the world of advanced manufacturing; and the old Studebaker buildings near Notre Dame are being replaced by a nanotechnology research park.
Southeast Michigan has a concentration on nanotechnology. The Engineering Research Center for Wireless Integrated MicroSystems (WIMS), which was established in 2000 by the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University, and funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is merging micropower circuits, wireless interfaces, biomedical and environmental sensors and subsystems, and advanced packaging to create microsystems that is reported will permeate virtually every aspect of society during the next 20 years.
In 2006, Oakland University in Rochester, MN, signed on a nanotechnologist to be its new vice provost for research. Since relocating to Rochester from San Antonio, Tachung C. Yih has developed key partnerships with local firms to focus on structural DNA, the application of nanoparticles to solar cells, and the development of student and faculty internships. He has also helped lead the university's efforts to collaborate with William Beaumont Hospitals on the creation of new medical school that will begin training "technically savvy" clinicians beginning in 2010.
There are numerous other examples of the Rust Belt embracing material sciences, and reaping its benefits. The result will certainly be seen in rebuilt and renovated cities and workforce in an area that desperately needs it.
Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online, Jim Kerstetter, writes, "The Intel of nanotech, whatever that company turns out to be, has just as good a chance of being based in Cleveland as it does in Silicon Valley."