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NSF, Purdue form new nanotech center for simulations

West Lafayette, Ind. January 15th, 2003

Researchers from seven universities and the National Science Foundation will announce on Thursday (1/16) the formation of a new Network for Computational Nanotechnology based at Purdue University.

The collaboration, funded with a $10.5 million, five-year grant from the NSF, will develop and use simulations to design materials and tiny devices for a wide range of applications, including a new generation of powerful, yet compact, computers.

As the lead institution, Purdue will work with researchers at the University of Illinois, the University of Florida, Morgan State University, Northwestern University, Stanford University and the University of Texas, El Paso.

A major focus of the center is to assemble diverse teams of researchers to create computer simulations that show the entire workings of a design - from its tiniest, nearly atomic-scale basic building blocks, to its largest components, which are visible to the naked eye, said Mihail Roco, the NSF's senior adviser for nanotechnology and coordinator of the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

"We envision a national center of excellence where academic and industry nanotechnologists will share the most advanced simulation tools for understanding and designing novel materials, catalysts, electronics, pharmaceuticals and many other things that would not have been otherwise possible," Roco said.

Simulations that combine all the parts of a design will be key to using nanotechnology for creating future computers, diagnostic devices for medicine, sensors for homeland security and environmental monitoring, and other potential as-yet unforeseen applications. Researchers in the NSF-funded center also will work with scientists and engineers in a new NASA-funded nanotechnology institute, also led by Purdue and announced this week, which will focus on developing powerful computers for future spacecraft.

Both the NSF and NASA efforts will have a strong commitment to education, which will be important to the advancement of nanotechnology, said Purdue Provost Sally Frost Mason.

"We not only must attract the best and the brightest students, the kind who get excited about working on the most challenging problems of the time, but we must also educate them differently so that they have depth in their discipline and the broad understanding that enables them to work in interdisciplinary teams," Mason said.

She will speak about the research during a 6:30 p.m. dinner Thursday (1/16) in the Purdue Memorial Union's North Ballroom. The announcements are part of a three-day conference at Purdue for researchers involved with both centers.

Both efforts will take advantage of the new Birck Nanotechnology Center, scheduled for completion in early 2005. The Birck center is one of four major facilities currently planned for Purdue's recently created Discovery Park, a complex of laboratories and offices that will use a multidisciplinary approach to develop new technologies.

"The success of Discovery Park has been contagious," said Charles O. Rutledge, the park's executive director and interim vice provost for research. "It's been slightly more than a year since we announced the park's formation, and it already has attracted nearly $50 million in research funding."

Scientists and engineers are increasingly using computer simulations to better understand how mathematical theories work in practice and to test design changes. The simulations have become vital for a wide variety of scientific research.

"Over the last 20 years, computation has emerged as a third way of doing science, one that complements theory and experimentation," said Mark Lundstrom, Purdue's Scifres Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the new center.

Simulations are needed to fully test and understand designs using nanotechnology, an emerging science in which new materials and tiny structures are built atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule. "Nano" is a prefix meaning one-billionth, so a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or roughly 10 atoms wide.

"There is a need for computational work in any field, but especially in a field in which you are exploring completely new kinds of devices and structures," Lundstrom said.

Engineers and scientists are trying to design transistors, memory cells and other electronic devices that are not much larger than individual atoms. Researchers can create simulations that show what's happening in each nanometer-scale device. But it is more complicated to extend those simulations into larger size scales to see how all the tiny parts fit together and function as a complete machine.

One problem is that matter behaves differently on the scale of nanometers than it does in the ordinary, macro-world of inches and feet. Another complication is that extremely small devices operate much faster than larger circuits and equipment.

The center will focus on creating simulations to unite size and time scales that now separate categories of research, showing the entire workings of a design, from its atomic-scale layout to its macro-scale features.

"Problems in nanotechnology transcend length scales, time scales and academic disciplines," Lundstrom said. "Our challenge is to bring together experts in well-developed disciplines to address science in the gaps between disciplines, and to focus teams on the most challenging problems in nanotechnology."

The center will dovetail with the NASA-funded institute, where a group of six universities will work to develop high-performance technologies for space missions. Its director is Supriyo Datta, the Thomas Duncan Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

"We have a real opportunity to connect theory and experiment in a way that has not been done before," Datta said. "Many of the problems being addressed by theory and computation are the same problems being addressed experimentally at the NASA institute, and the two fit together very nicely."

The new multidisciplinary NSF center will include about 20 faculty members from the seven universities, teaming up computer scientists with engineers and researchers in various fields. The computer scientists will develop simulations that are specifically tailored for certain research.

"The research will support the nation's nanotechnology initiative by linking experimentalists and computational experts," Roco said.

Traditionally, scientists and engineers have not worked side-by-side in the same labs with computer scientists skilled in creating simulations.

"It's a challenge because you have to link together experts in very different disciplines to solve one problem," Lundstrom said. "Having one center that is largely experimental and another center that is all computational, we think we have a real opportunity to couple these different researchers in a way that's usually difficult to do."

The computational center will be an integral part of NSF's infrastructure for nanotechnology research and will be used by scientists and engineers around the nation.

The center's work will fall within three research themes: nanoelectronics, nanoelectro-mechanics, and combining artificial nanostructures with biological ones.

"In nanoelectronics, the center will explore new technologies that can step in when the microelectronics industry, which has fueled the information revolution for nearly 50 years, reaches it limits," said James Hutchby, head of nanostructures and integration sciences at the Semiconductor Research Corp., a consortium of several semiconductor manufacturing companies.

Karl Hess, the Swanland Professor at the University of Illinois, said researchers want to exploit the nanostructures produced by nature to realize new kinds of "nano-bio-electronics systems." So-called ion channels in living cells are natural nanosystems with an amazing ability to regulate the flow of certain molecules in and out of a cell, he said.

"Understanding how ion channels operate may help us construct artificial nanoscale channels with new properties," Hess said. "If we can learn how to engineer at the nanoscale from nature, the opportunities are staggering."

For example, it might be possible to design ion switches for new types of low-power circuits. Such circuits would help engineers design and build computers that consume a fraction of the power needed for conventional electronics. Such an innovation, in turn, would enable researchers to cram more and more devices on a computer chip and to design super-compact, powerful computers.

"Detailed simulations of natural and artificial ion channels could help us to control and improve ion-channel activity in the human body, ranging from regulating heart beat to fighting cancer cells," Hess said.

An important part of the NSF center's mission will be to create an infrastructure that supports the national nanotechnology effort, said Ahmed Sameh, the Samuel Conte Professor of Computer Science and director of Purdue's Computing Research Institute.

A system pioneered at Purdue will enable scientists and engineers in different geographical regions to remotely use specialized software needed for nanotechnology research. The system will be an outgrowth of a prototype called the nanoHub, a computer grid that already delivers advanced nanotechnology simulations worldwide to users from high school students to professional scientists. Researchers don't have to place the software on their own computers.

"Now the nanoHub is running out of a corner of my lab, but it will be expanded into something much bigger," Lundstrom said. "That means people will be able to use a Web browser to run the software that is developed through this center."

Using a browser to access software from the nanoHub speeds research because scientists in remote locations no longer have to install the complex programs on their own computers. Instead, the researchers can quickly run programs housed on a server at Purdue.

Information Technology at Purdue, or ITaP, is in charge of the online service that will eventually make the specialized software available to the research community.

"Our role is to take the technology developed in the research environment and harden and deploy it for users," said James Bottum, Purdue's vice president for information technology. "This will allow us to deliver high-level nanotechnology simulation services to scientists, educators and students worldwide.

"Basically, it's an information source, but it's also a tool. Think of it as a scientific portal. In the future, computing software won't reside on your personal computer, but on a networked grid of resources."

When users run a simulation, the system will locate the needed hardware and software resources on a worldwide grid, perform the simulation and provide results to the user.

"The center's grid-based computing services will provide the largest operating testbed for what many believe will be the computing paradigm of the future," said Jose Fortes, the Bell South Eminent Scholar and director of the Advanced Computing and Information Sciences Laboratory at the University of Florida.

Fortes leads a team at Florida that is developing a second-generation grid-computing platform for the center.

Lundstrom said, "A real challenge in nanotechnology right now is to begin the hard work of turning the exciting advances of nanoscience into new technologies. Doing so will require us to connect the physicists and chemists who work on small devices to the engineers who will begin designing systems with, perhaps, trillions of nanocomponents."

Creating multidisciplinary teams will be critical to furthering work in nanotechnology.

"There will be some real synergies here," said Meyya Meyyappan, director of NASA's Nanotechnology Research Center.


Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709


Sally Frost Mason, (765) 494-9709
Supriyo Datta, (765) 494-3511,
Charles O. Rutledge, (765) 494-7766,
Mark Lundstrom, (765) 494-3515,
James R. Bottum, (765) 496-2266,

Related Web sites:

Mark Lundstrom:
Supriyo Datta:
Discovery Park:
National Nanotechnology Initiative:
What is nanotechnology:
Nanotechnology at Purdue:
Access Grid:

For further information, please contact:

Jeanne Norberg, director
Purdue University News Service
400 Centennial Mall Drive, Room 324
West Lafayette IN 47907-2016
Office: (765) 494-2096; Fax: (765) 494-0401
Pager: (765) 423-8662; Cell: (765) 491-1460
Home: (765) 449-4986

Reprinted with premission.
Copyright Purdue University.

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