Pitt dedicates new nanofabrication building

Small science is getting bigger. Last Friday, University of Pittsburgh officials unveiled a $6.1 million nanofabrication facility.

The facility will supplement the already-existing Petersen Institute for NanoScience and Engineering on Pitt’s campus.
From improvements in computer storage to the invention of glucose-sensory contact lenses, scientists are turning from the notion that “bigger is better” to researching phenomena on a much smaller scale.

“Nano-” means one-billionth. The Petersen Institute works with materials that are “essentially nano,” meaning less than 10 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in size.

Nanofabrication is the process of manipulating materials at the atomic level.

The University of Pittsburgh was recently ranked second in the nation for nanotechnology research by Small Times, a magazine focused on the business end of nanotechnology.

Pitt’s new nanofabrication facility is meant to promote research and education in nanoscience and nanotechnology.
The 4000-square-foot building is equipped with state-of-the-art tools that will allow researchers to observe and test samples of materials consisting of only a few atoms.

But it is not as easy as it may sound. Seeing the nanoworld requires a special set of microscopes and laser systems.

In particular, the facility’s transmission electron microscope allows researchers to produce an atomic-level image of materials. The facility’s plasma reactive ion etching system uses a beam of charged particles to cut away at small samples of material.

Scientists will be able to measure samples of materials at the nanoscale, which will help them see how the materials behave.

“The facility we are opening today is truly a world-class facility,” said the University of Pittsburgh’s provost and senior vice chancellor, James V. Maher. “I’m looking forward to the work we can all do in this building in the coming decades.”

The co-director of the Petersen Institute of NanoScience and Engineering, Hong Koo Kim, said that the facility will allow researchers to perform full-scale nanofabrication.

“It is very science-oriented, more discovery-oriented,” said Kim. “We want to go down to [a] fundamental level.”

Pitt’s School of Engineering, School of Arts and Sciences, and School of Health Sciences will also use the new facility.

Kim told Dynamic Business in the summer of 2005, “In every discipline, there is a growing need for fundamental capabilities to look at and act on the molecular level.

“If you talk with people across various disciplines, you learn different approaches.”

The new facility affords students and faculty a number of research opportunities, which include the creation of scaffolding that would support damaged hearts, the development of faster and smaller computers, and the creation of sensors to detect chemical levels in the human body.

One such project is currently headed by Pitt chemistry professor Sanford Asher. Asher is working with Gerald Cano, CEO of Glucose Sensing Technologies, to create contact lenses that change color in response to an individual’s glucose levels.

Cano said that creating the lenses first requires growing nanoscale colloidal particles. These particles produce a color depending on their spacing, which depends on glucose levels.

Cano said that once the particles are grown, they self-assemble naturally in the sensory material.

“The making of this material is really pretty simple once you’ve developed these colloidal particles,” Cano said. “It’s really simplistically elegant in the way it’s all done.”

The list of projects goes on, ranging from the study of proteins to the use of computer models illustrating nanoparticle assemblage to research of metal and ceramic strength.

Prior to the facility’s unveiling, Pitt’s chancellor, Mark A. Nordenberg, said that the new facility will benefit students advancing their education, faculty working on research projects, and individuals seeking health improvements.

“Today, we really do open up an entire new chapter,” said Nordenberg. “There’s a lot to celebrate today.”