L. James Lee wants to see an Ohio industry that is as adept at wielding individual molecules as it is at wielding large chunks of sheet metal, rubber, and plastic.
The professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State University and his team of researchers have just been awarded $12.9 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help make that happen.
The funds, doled out over five years, will support research into nanotechnology, the science of building devices molecule by molecule. A Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) will be headquartered at Ohio State, and draw on the expertise of more than thirty faculty. The center will boast partners in Ohio industry, as well as prominent institutions around the country and the world.
“Our goals are aggressive,” Lee said. “They are ambitious. In the short term, we want to develop commercial devices for biotechnology -- medical diagnostics and chemical sensors. I am confident that we can do that in two to three years.”
Nanotechnology could potentially be used to detect very small amounts of biowarfare agents, he explained. It could even diagnose cancer before tumors have a chance to form, by detecting the antibodies that our bodies produce in early response to cancer.
He smiled broadly and added, “And in the long term, what we really want to do is build a nanofactory.”
Ohio State researchers have had much success developing bio–microtechnology -- tools that can perform biomedical tests on a single drop of blood or a single cell. Taking their work to even smaller realms -- that of a virus, antibody, or gene -- poses special challenges. But OSU’s science coupled with Ohio’s long history of developing materials for the auto, aerospace, and manufacturing industries makes this a good place to move nanomanufacturing out of science fiction and into real-world mass production.
“Ohio has a lot of experience scaling up materials technology,” Lee said. “We can leverage that experience to scale the technology down.”
“The exciting science of building functional devices by manipulating individual atoms and molecules will yield innovations that most us have difficulty imagining,” said OSU’s President, Karen Holbrook. “We are fortunate, indeed, at OSU to have visionaries such as Dr. Jim Lee on our faculty.”
While NSF awarded a total of $69 million to establish six new NSECs around the country, Ohio State’s is the only one that will focus on polymer science. Most people think of plastic when they think of polymers, but any material made from a long repeating chain of molecules -- including plastic, rubber, and even DNA -- is a polymer.
The newly awarded NSF NSEC will support development of nanofluidics -- for controlling the flow of polymer molecules within tiny channels –- of nanoscale coatings, and of self-assembling molecules. To that end, the center will be called the Center for Affordable Nanoengineering of Polymer Biomedical Devices (CANPBD).
It will complement efforts at the other five centers established this year -- at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, University of Wisconsin, University of Pennsylvania, and Northeastern University -- that focus on areas such as nanoelectronics and computing.
CANPBD “will lead to exciting fundamental advances in nanoscience and nanoengineering, and ultimately the development of innovative new polymer-based medical nanodevices," William A. "Bud" Baeslack, dean of the College of Engineering, said. "Under Professor Jim Lee's demonstrated leadership, an outstanding multidisciplinary team of OSU faculty will successfully drive this research program, and extend its involvement and impact to our students and the broader community."
Ohio State’s NSEC team will encompass 32 faculty from four colleges: Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Medicine and Public Health, and Pharmacy.
They will be joined by researchers from each of six partner institutions: Boston University, Florida A&M University/Florida State University, John Hopkins University, Purdue University, University of Akron, and University of California at Berkeley. Other collaborators include more than 20 commercial companies in Ohio and around the country; Battelle; the Cleveland Clinic Foundation; the National Cancer Institute; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Wright Patterson Air Force Labs. International collaborators will hail from Europe, Asia and Australia.
“The partnerships inherent within this award reflect the leadership that OSU’s researchers bring to statewide, national and international research programs such as this exciting new program in nanotechnology and manufacturing,” said Robert McGrath, Senior Vice President for Research at Ohio State.
The $12.9 million will also fund education and outreach programs at the university, including the establishment of an undergraduate minor and graduate certificate programs in nanotechnology. Teachers and industrial researchers will be invited to Ohio State for nanotechnology training and educational seminars.
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