Grants help launch nanotechnology program at UAF

Posted: Wednesday, October 09, 2002

FAIRBANKS -- Dave Woodall has big plans for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. To make them come true, he's thinking small.

The dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Mathematics heads UAF efforts to begin a research center devoted to nanotechnology, the ultimate step in miniaturization, the manipulation of atoms and molecules into new materials and machines.

A $100 million microelectronics federal research grant to be shared by UAF and its partners over four years is turning the dream into labs and research.

''This is the first step for us, to build the infrastructure that will allow faculty and students to do the research, to attract industry partners to come, and related to this, we're going to build a research park,'' Woodall says confidently, as if announcing a lecture topic instead of a research effort that could have spinoffs for the Alaska economy.

Nano means one-billionth. A single nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter, about four times wider than the size of an atom and more than 1,000 times narrower than the width of a human hair.

Nanotechnology crosses fields such as engineering, chemistry and biology. Its promise is the molecular manufacturing of new products without the traditional factory.

The niche Woodall sees for UAF and its partners, and the source for their grant money, is in tiny sensors. Someday, he said, computers the size of a grain of pepper will be wired to sensors and power supplies smaller than that. They'll tell a wildlife biologist of the movements of 100,000 caribou or a doctor of the plaque buildup in a patient's arteries, Woodall said.

It sounds like magic. At one time, so did cell phones and copying machines, Woodall said. ''Ten years from now, 20 years from now, we'll be making sensors that you will not believe.''

Woodall's background is in physics, applied physics and engineering. He's the former dean of engineering at the University of Idaho and he's been at UAF since 1999.

The concept for UAF's new Center for Nanosensor Technol-ogy, approved by the Board of Regents last year, grew out of a faculty strategic planning retreat, Woodall said. Faculty members assessed UAF strengths and discussed its obligation for economic development in the state.

Woodall ticks off a list of UAF assets: satellite-based data acquisition, telecommunications expertise, the world's only scientific rocket-launching facility owned by a university, a high-speed data link to the rest of the world.

The school is home to the Arctic Region Supercomputer, plus faculty with expertise in arctic engineering, biotechnology and wildlife biology.

With its partners, UAF approached the Department of Defense and landed a contract from the Defense MicroElectron-ics Activity and the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency.

''We sold them on the fact that there was some very important promise we could work on, that are in a category they call dual-use,'' Woodall said, technology with commercial applications that also could be used by the Department of Defense.

The industry partners are charged with developing an ultra-low power battlefield sensor communication system. Congress last month approved a $7.2 million grant for UAF's research.

UAF's partners in the project include North Dakota State University and three out-of-state companies.

Last spring, UAF signed an intellectual properties agreement with Tessera Technologies of San Jose, Calif. The company specializes in advances in silicon packaging, the physical interface between silicon chips and circuit boards.

''The package is the box for the semiconductor chip,'' said Craig Mitchell, Tessera vice president of marketing.

The package protects the chip from damage, contamination, and stress from continuously heating and cooling. As chip technology improved, packaging had to keep pace to allow chips to works as designed, Mitchell said.

Tessera's work in creating smaller packages has allowed companies to make smaller cellular phones, personal digital assistants, gaming consoles, televisions and computer servers. UAF's research in tiny sensors is a natural application of Tessera's expertise, Mitchell said.

Tessera has intellectual property agreements with some 40 companies, mostly chip manufacturers and assemblers. This is the first with a university.

Mitchell said the partnership will generate opportunities for students, give faculty research opportunities and possibly set up commercial opportunities in Alaska.

The intellectual property agreement will give UAF researchers and students access to trade secrets and the right to use their processes and know-how, Mitchell said.

In return, Mitchell said, Tessera generally receives compensation in the form of a one-time license fee and a royalty for each product manufactured.

The deal also allows Tessera to be part of Defense Department research, train students in its technology and tap into creative minds, Mitchell said.

''We'd like to help students understand the technology,'' Mitchell said.

The other partners in the venture are defense contractor Signal Technology Corp. of Boston and Superconducting Technologies Inc., a California company with expertise in remote interrogation of electronic devices.

DARPA committed $3.5 million to the project last year, including $1.4 million for UAF. The agency committed $29 million to the contract this year, including the $7.2 million for UAF, and similar amounts to the team for the next three years.

''This is, basically, about a $100 million, four-year effort,'' Woodall said.

Initial funding has been devoted to planning infrastructure needed for the research.

North Dakota State University plans a $10 million, 750,000-square-foot building for nanotechnology research.

At UAF, the new program has highlighted the campus' ongoing research space shortage. Nanotechnology research in Fairbanks will start with an 1,800-square foot clean room in the Natural Sciences building. A likely location for another 7,000 square feet is within a 38,000-square foot West Ridge Research Center. Design of the building has just been completed. It's projected to be ready by February 2004.

To the center's skeptics, Woodall says UAF is not trying to compete with Silicon Valley.

''What we're trying to do is build some novel infrastructure which will be at the leading edge of new technologies,'' he said.

''UAF and North Dakota State are going to be the only two universities in the U.S. that have these new technologies from our industry partners. We're going to be the place to go if you want to know how to do this novel heterogeneous assembly. We're not just trying to follow along behind what other universities have done. We've picked some new areas that we think are going to have enormous impact.''

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