Building a strong nanotech workforce

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Dec. 15, 2004 – The nanotechnology bubble is rapidly inflating and investors have started betting on the potential of these new technologies to enhance existing products and create novel ones that will capture a large market. Although the nanometer scale has been the focus of attention since the discovery of Brownian motion, it is the ability to harness its potential to create novel products that is responsible for the present revolution.

But there also is a growing concern that a shortage of a trained workforce could slow this booming industry. A number of centers and institutes are being created to meet the demand for research and training. Restructuring traditional curricula can be a major step toward providing trained professionals.

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Nowadays the basic principles underlying nanotechnology are covered in most traditional curricula. But traditional science and engineering curricula should emphasize more innovative applications at the nanometer scale as well.

It is important to get the message through that nanotechnology is not a new and bizarre science but a systematic extension of well-accepted science and technology.

The following broad areas should be considered as opportunities for educating the public and future workers.

Silicon microtechnology

Semiconductor technology and lithography have played a major role in the development of the electronics industry. These techniques have enabled the fabrication of memories, devices and microsystems. As the technology and associated techniques have gotten better, the size of electronic components has been steadily shrinking in compliance with Moore’s law.

The electronics industry is optimistic that improvements in current technologies alone will allow fabrication at the nanometer scale. Such top-down technologies are already showing promise in the manufacture of nanotechnology-enabled memories, electro-mechanical systems, and optical-electronic components — thanks to better imprinting and lithographic techniques.


Certain forms of matter have the ability to aggregate spontaneously into ordered structures. For example, naturally occurring minerals such as zeolites have well defined structures. Creating suitable conditions artificially can cause matter to self-assemble in a controlled fashion to yield desired structures.

Designer templates are already being used as catalyst supports to provide high-surface area and better transport of reactants and products. Bottom-up approaches such as these are becoming increasingly important as the size of many products shrinks to the nanometer scale. They provide the potential to produce scaffolds that cannot be created by conventional top-down approaches.

Recently, there has been a surge in the developing self-assembled structures with applications in electronics and template development. For example, IBM researchers created honeycomb structures by spinning block co-polymers.

Conventional techniques such as chemical vapor deposition also have been used to create well-defined nanometer-size semiconductor crystals that can be flexibly assembled to perform desired functions. The two elegant structures displayed by carbon — tube and ball — are the most unique and distinctive of current nanotechnologies. These structures have already shown the potential in the development of electronic components, better supports for catalysts and novel materials.

Colloid and surface science

This area of science is most familiar with the understanding and manipulation of matter at a nanometer scale. Colloidal systems show the ability to self-aggregate and this property has been used to create novel templates and better carriers for catalysts. Stabilized emulsions have widespread applications in chemical, food and pharmaceutical industries.

Over the years, theoretical and experimental techniques have been developed that can facilitate the creation of new products and enhance existing ones. The ability to modify surfaces to have desired properties has played an important role in driving the development of new products such as stain-resistant textiles and better coatings.

Biological systems

These are the oldest and most powerful nanometer scale systems that occur naturally. Recent advances in genome projects and the development of high-throughput techniques reveal a huge list of molecular components within cells and the manner in which they interact with each other to perform various functions.

The resulting knowledge has shown promise in the development of artificial biological circuits that can perform basic logic operations akin to their electronic counterparts. Combining these powerful techniques with conventional nanotechnologies can significantly enable the development of novel devices, diagnostics, and therapeutics. Microfluidic devices, functionalized quantum dots, and biosensors are a few examples of such applications.

Most nanotechnology today lies in the application of innovative extensions of existing science and technology. What is now required is an emphasis on practical solutions. A good start would be to make a list of factors that would significantly enhance the performance of an existing product such as a battery and think about how the ability to manipulate matter at the nanometer scale can meet these requirements.

There is considerable excitement in the electronics, chemical, energy and medical industries for creating novel products as well as to enhance current ones. Let us hope that academic institutions will restructure their existing curricula to meet the huge demands of this rapidly expanding and promising industry.


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