What's up with nanotech?

Ultrasmall wonders are opening big new frontiers, despite fading of the initial excitement

By Robert Gavin
Globe Staff / March 29, 2010

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LOWELL — When the University of Massachusetts Lowell launched its nanotechnology center six years ago, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs were dreaming big dreams about small things, like miniature generators to replace batteries and microscopic robots to repair human tissues.

State officials and economic developers imagined new industries and jobs. Universities jockeyed for billions in research money. The news media hyped it as the next big thing.

So what happened?

A lot, actually. While nanotechnology — working at a scale that is one-thousandth the width of a human hair — may have faded from the public’s imagination, the field has made substantial progress in recent years, opening new frontiers in electronics, medicine, and materials.

Nanotech products have begun to enter commercial markets. Components such as nanoparticles and tiny conductive wires called carbon nanotubes are being standardized and mass-produced. New discoveries are being made. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, researchers recently found that carbon nanotubes can not only conduct electricity, but generate it.

“Nanotechnology may have faded from view,’’ said Michael Strano, who led the MIT team that made the discovery, “but it has dissolved into a sea of science.’’

At UMass Lowell, researchers have built working prototypes of sensors with components smaller than a grain of sand, able to detect chemical weapons, biological weapons, and previously undetectable cracks that threaten the integrity of ceramic body armor. They have also developed a process, similar to ink jet printing, to rapidly apply the sensors to soldiers’ equipment.

Congress recently approved a $4 million appropriation for the university to continue its work on what many believe is the great challenge for nanotechnology: developing processes and tools to manufacture nanodevices in high volumes.

“It’s not sexy,’’ said Joey Mead, a UMass Lowell plastics engineering professor, “but it’s critical for going from the lab to the market.’’

In many ways, a lack of sexiness has lowered nanotechnology’s profile. Unlike with other technologies, there is not necessarily a consumer product at the end of the pipeline. Instead, nanotechnology often provides the components that make breakthroughs in new and existing products possible.

For example, T2 Biosystems Inc., of Cambridge, is developing a compact diagnostic system, about the size of a personal computer, that would allow doctors to quickly test blood and urine in their offices, instead of sending the samples to laboratories. Company officials estimate the system could cut diagnostic costs by 30 percent or more.

What makes this possible are magnetic nanoparticles, which mix with the body fluids and act like an MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging machine, to detect bacteria, cancer, and viruses. Company officials say they hope to have their system in clinical trials by the end of next year, and approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees medical devices, in about two years.

“What we’re doing was tried in the ’90s, but it didn’t work because nanotechnology didn’t work,’’ said John McDonough, T2’s chief executive. “We’re doing something that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. Nanotechnology enables the creation of new things.’’

New technologies typically take decades to develop. For example, it took about 50 years for information technology to mature, from the introduction of vacuum tube computers to the widespread adoption of the Internet, said Mihail Roco, senior advisor for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation.

Nanotechnology is at about the point that IT had reached in 1975, said Roco, but has gotten there much faster. Roco estimates nanotechnology will reach IT’s 1995 stage by 2020.

Meanwhile, the technology is advancing, from the commercial production of components such as nanoparticles to commercialization of more complex systems.

Konarka Technologies Inc., of Lowell, used nanotechnology to develop a plastic material that converts solar energy to electricity. Now, the company is producing photovoltaic systems by printing nanoscale layers of material on top of each other. As sunlight reacts with the material, electrons pass through the thin layers to create electricity.

The lightweight, flexible films, in turn, are spurring other products. For example, they can be incorporated into purses, backpacks, and laptops to create portable solar chargers for electronic devices.

Konarka’s technology was spun from research at UMass Lowell, an illustration of why state economic officials believe Massachusetts is well positioned to benefit from nanotechnology. Several universities, including Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, UMass Lowell, and UMass Amherst, are doing advanced research.

Over roughly the past decade, the state has received more than $400 million in nanotech grants for research, education, and small business from the National Science Foundation, ranking third among the states, behind California and New York. In addition, at least 175 companies in Massachusetts describe themselves as nanotechnology operations, according to Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a state economic development agency.

Nanotechnology, however, is not a traditional industry cluster. It cuts across several sectors, said Patrick Larkin, director of the collaborative’s John Adams Innovation Institute.

For example, Nantero Inc. in Woburn is using carbon nanotubes to develop a next-generation computer memory chip, while Cerulean Pharma Inc., of Cambridge, uses nanoparticle drugs to precisely target and attack tumors.

Larkin describes nanotech as “an enabling technology’’ that will advance existing industries and catalyze new ones. In some ways, he said, the research today is akin to what happened in the early 19th century, when the Springfield Armory pioneered a manufacturing process that used interchangeable parts, making components that were assembled into muskets.

The skills, methods, and tools to make precise parts were used throughout the state to transform textiles, shoes, and watchmaking, making Massachusetts an industrial powerhouse.

University researchers, collaborating with companies, are today developing nanotechnology tools and techniques that may well transform a new generation of industries, Larkin said.

“Nanotechnology isn’t a flash in a pan,’’ he said.

“Our capacity for nanotech innovation will create a center of gravity to attract industries. It directly relates to company formation and jobs for generations.’’

Robert Gavin can be reached at