The state's bid for leadership in the emerging field of nanotechnology got a boost yesterday when the National Science Foundation awarded a $12.4 million five-year grant to a consortium, led by Northeastern University, to create an engineering center to develop tools and processes for building nanoscale devices.
Joining with Northeastern in the effort to manufacture these microscopic devices, measured in billionths of a meter, will be the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the University of New Hampshire, the Museum of Science in Boston, and Michigan State University.
The parties will collaborate at a new Center for High Rate Manufacturing, which will be based on the fourth floor of the Egan Center currently under construction at Northeastern, and directed by Northeastern mechanical engineering professor Ahmed Busnaina.
Northeastern will receive $4.7 million, the largest share of the grant, while $3.4 million will go to UMass-Lowell, $3.3 million to UNH, $700,000 to Michigan State, and $300,000 to the science museum.
Initially, these institutions will work on products like biosensors that can be implanted in the body to detect diseases, and nanotube memory chips that can store more data than silicon chips.
But down the road scientists believe nanotechnology holds the key to mass production of a wide range of tiny new materials and devices, from long-lasting generators that can be used in place of batteries to implantable "smart" pills that can deliver small doses of medicine to patients over extended periods.
"There's huge potential for practical applications in biomedicine, drug delivery, environment, materials, and a new generation of electronics products," said M. Mitchell Waldrop, spokesman for the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va.
The grant to the Northeastern-led consortium is part of a broader initiative to establish nanotech research centers across the country with different technology specialties. Yesterday the science foundation issued awards to six new nanotech centers, from the University of Wisconsin to the University of California at Berkeley, bringing to 14 the number of centers funded since 2000. So far, the foundation has committed a total of $250 million to the effort.
Northeastern had previously set up a Nanomanufacturing Research Institute, funded in part with a $2 million grant from alumnus George Kostas, a Houston businessman. With the new federal grant, that institute now will be folded into the Center for High Rate Nanomanufacturing, said Northeastern provost Ahmed Abdelal.
"Nanotechnology is one of the fields in which Northeastern University is putting a stake in the ground," said Northeastern's president Richard M. Freeland. "We think we have the capacity to be a lead institution in the region, and to help establish the region as a leader."
Massachusetts has drawn about $100 million in federal nanotech research grants since the US government launched its National Nanotechnology Initiative four years ago, more than any other state but California. Earlier this month, however, the Massachusetts Legislature rejected a supplemental budget request by Governor Mitt Romney to spend $19.5 million to build a nanotechnology center at UMass-Lowell.
"I'm delighted that the federal government is investing in Northeastern," Romney said yesterday. "I'm a big believer that nanotech is a technology of the future and that Massachusetts can't afford to be left behind. I think it was a mistake that our Legislature didn't approve the funds, and I'm going to keep fighting for it."
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.