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UNH welcomes high-tech help

The multimillion-dollar federal research grant in nanotechnology recently awarded to the University of New Hampshire holds promise not only for the school but the state economy as well, according to state officials.

''This could be one of the more significant events for the long-term health of the economy in the last decade," said Stuart Arnett, director of economic development for New Hampshire. ''Nanotech is not a product, it's a new process. Just as electronics leaped when they became microelectronics, the next great thing is nano. It's going to be extremely important to the future of manufacturing and also will be the new standard for other industries, like agriculture and medicine."

UNH is making its presence known in the nanotechnology field, as it received nearly $4 million as part of a $12.4 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation and other matching funds. UNH is part of a consortium that includes two other primary partners, Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, as well as Michigan State University and the Museum of Science in Boston.

Despite traditional manufacturing's migration southward, nanotechnology expertise may help New Hampshire develop new manufacturing bases and boost existing state businesses, such as medical devices, said Arnett, who added, ''New Hampshire has excelled since Civil War days when we first became an industrial state by manufacturing high-value-added products versus commodities or high-volume products, and that's what nano is about."

The grant is a big bite of the research-funding apple for a New Hampshire institution, far larger than earlier National Science Foundation nanotechnology-related grants to UNH, other in-state institutions, or consortiums. Nanotechnology center funding is fairly new, but most foundation grants have gone to states other than New Hampshire, according to the foundation's website.

''This is a consortium of mostly small schools, and they obviously had a good idea and some good people," said M. Mitchell Waldrop, foundation spokesperson. ''Just because a campus is small, they may still have a small group of people who are very good or have expertise that a larger school may not have."

Nanomanufacturing draws its strength from the bonding together of microscopic objects. Likewise, the consortium is the result of the pulling together of the three primary university partners in this project, who alone might not have been able to compete with what some UNH personnel view as the ''superpower" universities.

The consortium will develop tools to manufacture at the nanoscale, creating new ways of manipulating objects smaller than one-thousandth the width of a human hair into devices that promise to transform biotech and high-tech products.

Initially, the consortium will tackle two applications: the creation of biosensors, which can be implanted in the human body to detect disease, and nanotube memory chips, which will provide greater memory to computers than silicon-based memory chips.

At this point, one automobile company employs nanoscale objects in a polymer composite to create lightweight, high-strength running boards. Ultimately, scientists hope to create devices that can harness millions of functional nano objects into precise patterns for industrial use. This type of sophisticated nanotechnology is more potential than application at the moment. The consortium seeks to change that.

''The impact [of the grant] is regional," said Glen Miller, co-principal investigator for the grant and UNH associate professor. ''It's important for New Hampshire to be part of what is likely to be a growing industry in the next decade or so. Wherever you want high strength and lightweight, you'll see nanotubes being used."

The long-term outlook is also positive for UNH, despite the university's initial investment of grant overhead back into the project.

''It's badly needed money for our continual operation, especially in these tough budgetary times as a state university," said Arthur Greenberg, UNH's dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. ''People don't necessarily think of universities as entrepreneurial, but just like any business, we've made a long-term investment to support quality research on campus and position us for one of the next big things, in this case, nanomanufacturing. We know it's an important field for both the university and the future of the state."

In its role within the new Center for High Rate Nanomanufacturing, UNH will focus on its strengths in chemistry and physics while Northeastern and UMass-Lowell will focus on engineering.

''To make nanomanufacturing viable, we have to make tools to help us manufacture at a high rate," said Miller. ''So, we at UNH will create templates that direct nano objects to self assemble in a matter of minutes."

Miller compared self-assembly with a stamping process, saying, ''It's like where you put ink on to a stamp and then transfer that design onto paper. Of course when you're dealing with very small objects, there are going to be problems as some do not transfer or are not in the right pattern. So there's a tremendous amount of work for reliability and defect control, and that has to be done to make the manufacturing process robust."

The consortium will work with a number of company partners on an industrial advisory board, including BAE Systems, which has locations in Nashua, Merrimack and Hudson, and Bentley Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Exeter.

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