CMU receives $4 million grant for new nanotechnology building

Governor Edward Rendell announced last month that $4 million in state redevelopment funds would be allocated for the construction of a 180,000-square-foot nanotechnology center at Carnegie Mellon.

The building, scheduled to open sometime in 2009, will establish Carnegie Mellon as a legitimate contender in the global nanotechnology race.

Nanotech revealed

Air travel. Television. These relatively recent technological developments have dramatically altered the way we do things. Or have they?

Marvin Minksy, renowned mathematician and computer scientist at MIT, wrote that air travel reduced travel time from days to merely hours.

In comparison, the railroad shortened travel times from weeks to days, which is a far more revolutionary contribution in Minsky’s mind.

Likewise, the television merely upped the ante on a pre-existing technological marvel: the radio. Essentially, these “high-tech wonders” made the metaphorical wheel better, but they failed to reinvent it.
That is where nanotechnology enters.

The potential implications of nanotechnological science are high, and many scientists believe that it will be the modern-day contribution to the evolution of technology.

Regular circuits are built on a scale that is roughly equal to one-thousandth of a meter, a millimeter. Microcircuits are built on a microscale level, equal to one-millionth of a meter. But in order to disassemble and rearrange the constituents that hold it together, one needs to probe at a scale 1000 times smaller.

A cluster of 100,000 nanoparticles would yield an accumulation smaller than the width of a human hair.

At first, the idea of working on such an infinitesimal level might seem trivial. In reality, this is hardly the case. Manipulating atoms and molecules at a nanoscale level is essentially getting to the root of a problem.

The idea is not a new one. Richard Feynman first proposed the idea of nanoscale atomic manipulation in 1959. K. Eric Drexler coined the term “nanotechnology” in 1986. Now science is starting to catch up with the dreams of science fiction.

The technology is being applied more and more in the nanomedicine field. Cancer research, in particular, has benefited from nanotechnology.

Nanoparticles have the capability to target specific cancer cells. When a patient undergoes chemotherapy, the current treatment for cancer, millions of healthy cells are also destroyed.

Nanotech at CMU

With nanotechnology’s diverse array of applications, it is small wonder that Carnegie Mellon would want to establish a center for nanotech research.

The proposed facility will strive to use nanotechnology in ways that will complement research already taking place on campus. This means bypassing basic nanomolecular tinkering and actively applying nanotech advancements in ways that will yield practical and attainable results.

“You can do a lot of work in the nano area without ever understanding how it’s going to be useful or applied,” said Pradeep Khosla, dean of the College of Engineering. Khosla was instrumental in spearheading the effort to get this research facility built.

“We are connecting the application areas that [Carnegie Mellon] is known for with newer technology that we did not have a play in five years ago,” Khosla said.

There is a fine line between nanotechnology for the sake of nanotechnology, and nanotechnology for the sake of practicality.

While the prospect of medical nanorobots engaged in intracellular search-and-destroy missions is fascinating, it is still confined to the world of science fiction. The new center for nanotechnology, on the other hand, will be built to concentrate on the problems plaguing people today and try to find solutions for tomorrow’s problems. “Just take the environment — water mediation, for example.” Khosla said. “We want to understand how we can use nanotechnology and nanoparticles to improve water quality — which is very different from doing nanotechnology work and not knowing where it’s going to be applied.”

The center will house research labs and offices to supplement the Collaborative Innovation Center. The new center could create upwards of 400 jobs.

There is also the prospect of the center drawing on a wide range of researchers, which could increase the chance of a scientific breakthrough. Whatever the chance of scientific revolution, the new nanotech center will embrace it with open arms.