Back to Home Page
College Home
University Home
Past Issues
Contact the Editor
Signatures Cover
Download PDF of this Issue
Changing Misconceptions about Engineering
Seeing the Big Picture
Talking Points
Taking Note
Making the Grade
Sharing Perspectives
Reaching Out
Staying in Touch
<< Ph.D. candidate Jeffrey Bean, left, and Wolfgang Porod, the Frank M. Freimann Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of the Center for Nano Science and Technology, load a silicon wafer into the Elionix ELS-7700 electron beam lithography system. The system, which will create patterns on the wafer, is capable of producing features as small as 5 nanometers, approximately 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

Nanotechnology: Shaping the World Atom by Atom

Wolfgang Porod
Department of Electrical Engineering

The emerging fields of nanoscience and nanoengineering are leading to unprecedented understanding and control over the fundamental building blocks of all things physical. This is likely to change the way many things are designed and manufactured, with tremendous potential for innovative applications across a vast array of fields including healthcare, the environment, biotechnology, energy and food production, information technologies, and aerospace. This momentum has been building for quite some time.

During a Congressional hearing in April 1998, the chief science adviser to President Clinton and former director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Neal Lane stated, “If I were asked for an area of science and engineering that will most likely produce the breakthroughs of tomorrow, I would point to nanoscale science and engineering.” Subsequently, in its 2001 budget submission to Congress, the Clinton administration raised nanoscale science and technology to the level of a federal initiative, referring to it as the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

Nanotechnology remains a top research priority. Today, the NNI maintains a collaborative program among 25 federal agencies with a long-term strategic plan. President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act in 2001, and the 2007 budget provides roughly $1.3 billion for nanotechnology research. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has even established a new cross-reference digest for nanotechnology, designated Class 977/Dig.1 and titled “Nanotechnology.”

“Nano,” which derives from the Greek word for dwarf, is used in science as a prefix to denote one billionth of something. One nanosecond is one billionth of a second (light travels about one foot in a nanosecond), and one nanometer is one billionth of a meter (roughly the size of a small molecule). The term “nanotechnology” is used to refer to engineering on the length scale of 1-100 nanometers. This is the natural spatial context for molecules and their interactions, which ultimately determine the macroscopic properties of materials and structures. As Nobel laureate Richard Smalley said, “Nanotechnology is the builder’s final frontier.”

The University of Notre Dame has a long tradition for contributions to this young field. In the late 1980s — when the term “nanotechnology” was barely known — the College of Engineering strongly supported research in nanoelectronics. This work led to the discovery of a new concept for transistorless computing, called Quantum-dot Cellular Automata (QCA). Invented at Notre Dame in the mid 1990s, QCA is sometimes referred to as “Notre Dame logic.” It is recognized by the semiconductor industry as one of the candidates for an emerging device technology, and it is part of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors.

Nanotechnology is a priority area at the University, with its focal point in the Center for Nano Science and Technology (NDnano). Established in 2000, the center explores new device concepts and associated architectures that are enabled by novel phenomena on the nanometer scale. It serves as a catalyst for multidisciplinary research and education in nanoelectronics, molecular electronics, nano-bio and bio-fluidic microstructures, circuits, and architectures. It also facilitates collaborations between participating faculty from the departments of electrical engineering, computer science and engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry and biochemistry, and physics, as well as with partners from industry and organizations around the world.

In addition to an active and internationally recognized research program, NDnano maintains a strong focus on educational and outreach activities. Numerous undergraduate research projects are under way, and the center hosts a nano-bio summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. NDnano also hosts a summer Research Experience for Teachers program, which targets local high school teachers and students. Just as exciting is the partnership that the center has developed with the FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology] LEGO® League (FLL), a not-for-profit organization that engages children in the pursuit of science and technology. In fact, two Notre Dame representatives were on the FLL team that designed the 2006 nanotechnology-based challenge in which approximately 75,000 young people participated.

Nanotechnology is definitely going strong at Notre Dame, so the next time you see ND, I’d like you to think that “ND” stands for “NanoDevices.”

A faculty member since 1986, Wolfgang Porod, the Frank M. Freimann Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of the Center for Nano Science and Technology, is the co-inventor of Quantum-dot Cellular Automata and has received numerous awards and appointments for his expertise in quantum devices and architectures for nanoelectronics.

FIRST LEGO® League (FLL) combines hands-on interactive robotics and real-world challenges with a sports-like atmosphere. During the pilot program in 1998, 1,600 children participated in two U.S. tournaments. A total of 7,460 teams — 60,000 children worldwide — participated in 2005. Each year the challenge covers a a different technology or problem that impacts society. The 2006 challenge was called Nano Quest. As the students learned about nanotechnology, they had to offer a solution to a problem using those principles. Notre Dame’s Wolfgang Porod, the Frank M. Freimann Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of the Center for Nano Science and Technology, and Carol Osmer, formerly with the center and now in the Office of the President of the University, were part of the team of five professionals who designed the 2006 challenge. They also organize the annual regional FLL competition at the University.