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IEEE Symposium left no doubt about its success

Nanotech: Imagine the Possibilities!

Posted on December 02, 2005

By Nick Massetti

On November 15th, the IEEE San Francisco Bay Area Nanotechnology Council inaugurated a first-of-its-kind annual symposium combining a celebration of the current work of university graduate researchers, along with and a challenge to local seasoned high-tech workers to imagine some down-to-earth applications of that work. A capsule of the presented work and the measures of success are reported here.

Dubbed NANOTECH: IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES!, the idea behind this event may have been in a lot of ways ahead of its time, just like a lot of the aspects of Nanotechnology. Based on the results however, its time may have come just in time.

The idea started with a question. What would happen if you put the next generation of high-tech R&D scientists and engineers in the same room along with their parent's generation of seasoned Silicon Valley scientists and engineers? For once, no professors, no looming tests, and no VCs to define their future success. It was simple: The university graduate researchers present pre-publication briefs of their current work and, the audience conjectures about how it might apply in industry now or someday hence. The researchers would go away with positive feedback on their work, and hopefully some real world possible applications to energize them toward completing their projects. The audience would go away in amazement over the presented emerging research results and also with the satisfaction that perhaps their own input might someday have an impact on the direction of applied nanotechnology. The Symposium's results met all its imagined positive outcomes.

To understand the motivation for having such a symposium, consider the following. In the 21st Century's information economy, IDEAs are the most priceless resource. High technology industries are driving economic growth the world over, and one third of the global market for high technology products is owned by US high tech companies. This US dominance is driven in large part by its Science and Engineering education system which closely couples advanced training with hands-on research experience. According to NSF statistics, the portion of science and engineering doctorate holders who remain engaged in R&D as a major work activity is 85%, 4 years after their degree, and 45% after another 30 years. Also, even though during 2002 US industry outspent universities on R&D $194 billion to $36 billion, it was the universities who performed 55% of the Country's basic research. So given that university graduate researchers play a key role in driving the engine known as the US high technology industry, a forum to foster and perhaps to provide a measure of focus seemed valuable. Also, in light of the recent emergence of the rest of the world on the high tech landscape, the timeliness of such a forum seemed right. The Symposium, held in the heart of Silicon Valley at National Semiconductor's Sunnyvale meeting center, featured eight current Doctoral candidates and Post Doctoral university researchers. They came from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Santa Clara University, and as far away as the University of Southern California. As a measure of the geographical diversity represented, they listed their home towns as Taipei, Tehran, Asheville NC, College Station TX, Chongging City China, Portland OR, Redlands CA, and Shingle Springs CA (for the curious, a gold rush era town of 7500 inhabitants). The audience only numbered a few dozen, but they came full of ideas and energy to network among themselves and the graduate researchers.

The presentations had outstanding technical depth, stunning presentation materials, and were delivered with an unanticipated maturity (given the seemingly nano-dimensions of their ages and experiences compared to the audience's).

Shelley Claridge of UCB's Chemistry Department showed how she is using DNA as a scaffolding structure to manipulate Gold nanoparticles for potential use in the assembly, for example, of nanoscale optical devices. DNA's programmability, structural features, and ease of synthesis make possible the creation of unnatural structural motifs as well.

Rong Fan from UCB's Chemistry Department also applied DNA in his work. This time the DNA was squeezed through inorganic nanotubes that had been fashioned into a fluidic transistor circuit. His demonstration of N-type and P-type FETs was a throwback of 30 years for some of the CMOS pioneers in the audience.

Jacob Hooker, also of UCB's Chemistry Department, described removing the harmful insides of a virus' protective shell, and then synthetically modifying the interior surface to accept the insertion of molecules. The potential delivery of anti-cancer drugs appeared to be a real possibility. Daniel Scott, from UC Davis' Chemistry Department, continued the nano-bio theme by showing his progress with using enzymes as biological catalysts to build metallic and bimetallic nanoparticles with near atomic size control.

Ladan Mohaddes, who is on a research assignment at UCB from the University of Maryland, showed how she has assembled strongly ferromagnetic nanowires into densely populated columns perpendicular to the substrate. The hard disk drive soldiers in the audience could see the terabit/square inch milestone being left far behind with this potential innovation. From the back of the room someone said: 'Eat my dust FLASH Memory!"

Ian Lee, doing Post Doctoral work in USC's Electrical Engineering-Systems Department, showed the importance of the early theoretical work on those ideas that eventually get tested in the lab. His new theorem predicts that nanotube-dipole antennas should be capable of detecting narrowband wireless signals. Banks of these tuned nanotube frequency detectors could help build an artificial cochlea for the inner ear. This really piqued the interest of those of us now suffering hearing loss from all those days in noisy fab environments.

Donald Sirbuly, from UCB's Department of Chemistry, is also doing Post Doctoral research. He showed, in essence, nanotubes performing like optical fibers. His demonstration showed that they are robust enough to stand significant flexing. These semiconductor nanostructures were shown to be capable of combining, deconvolving, and steering light in ways that may have exciting applications in microfluidics and nanobiotechnology.

Quoc Ngo, of SCU's Center for Nanostructures, updated his work on carbon nanofibers with potential use to extend IC interconnects beyond the limitation looming for copper vias. Ongoing improvements in the resistance and current carrying capacity of carbon nanofibers demonstrate the viability of these structures for next-generation IC fabrication schemes.

The Symposium wrapped up late in the afternoon with more networking and an unusual phenomenon for half-day symposia – the audience stayed until the end.

The buzz was loud. Everyone marveled at the level of technical sophistication demonstrated in the presentations. The audience slowly retreated knowing they still had what it takes to be a dreamer in valley where Silicon Microtechnology changed the world. And the young researchers, their work recognized by peers to be, went away laden with notes about previously unimagined possibilities for their work in Nanotechnology. At the end the Symposium as well was an imagined possibility that actually came to be.

Nick Massetti
Program organizer, Nanotech: Imagine the Possibilities!
IEEE SF BA Nanotechnology Council Steering Committee

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