U.S. agency tackles nano’s
next challenge: measurement

WASHINGTON — The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the federal agency dedicated to the science of measurement, made it clear during an open house Thursday that it’s serious about measuring material on the nanoscale.

During a daylong preview of NIST’s various commitments to nanotechnology, scientists touted their research in fields ranging from nanostructure physics to chemical nanoanalysis metrology to single-electron devices.

Establishing standards and measurements on the nanoscale, said several presenters, is an increasingly important task for NIST.

“This is all about measurement,” said Robert Celotta, the leader of NIST’s Electron Physics Group during his presentation on nanostructure physics. “Nanotechnology is a big area for us.”

The growing importance of nanotechnology to the federal government at large was underscored by Benjamin Wu, deputy undersecretary for technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce. President Bush demonstrated his commitment to nanotechnology by calling for a 17 percent funding boost in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Wu said, adding that the president recognizes the world is in the middle of a race for nanotechnology supremacy.

The launching of NNI, Wu said, “was like the shots fired at Lexington — it was like the shot heard around the world.” Former President Clinton started the NNI in 2000.

NIST now has about 100 ongoing nanotechnology-related projects, representing about 6 percent of the federal government’s nanotech research investment. Bush is budgeting about $43 million in the 2003 budget for nanotechnology research within NIST.

At a dinner for the National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative the night before NIST’s open house, NIST Director Arden Bement delivered a long speech dedicated to nanotechnology.

“What do we see as the unique NIST role in nanotechnology?” he asked. “Measurement is the answer, of course … The NSF may be right when they say that we’ll see a $1 trillion nanotech market by 2011, but we’ll need a strong metrology infrastructure to get there. And that’s what we do.”

Eric Steel, leader of the microanalysis research group at NIST, said at the open house that nanoengineered powders and films figure into his group’s research. The products, he said, could be instrumental in stealth technologies that let jets fly without being detected by radar, for example.

But these materials need measurements down to the single-atom level, and the science just isn’t there yet, he said, although it’s getting closer. One problem is that as scientists improve the sensitivity of probes, they lose spatial resolution. NIST researchers have worked on using cluster ions to simultaneously gain sensitivity and spatial resolution. The technique, he said, is promising.

The agency is also doing work in nanobiotechnology, particularly in tissue engineering. In one project, NIST scientists are building tools that will find and manipulate single atoms in biologically active materials. In addition, through the NIST Center for Neutron Research, the agency is collaborating with the University of California, Irvine, to build the first neutron-beam research station dedicated to biological membrane experiments.

NIST researchers are also involved with development of new materials that can, for example, better withstand heat from fires. The polymeric materials group, led by Mark VanLandingham, is researching the fire-resistant properties of new materials that are formed when organic resins are reacted with nanoscale clay particles.

Bement has taken to talking-up nanotechnology regularly in recent months, and it’s clear that nanotechnology isn’t dropping from the agency’s agenda anytime soon. In closing his speech at Wednesday’s dinner, Bement offered “one additional suggestion as you consider the future.”

“Think small,” he said. “Very small.”


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