AMHERST – State officials and technology industry executives Wednesday announced the expansion of the University of Massachusetts’ nanotechnology research center, saying it will be a cornerstone for the future competitiveness of manufacturing in the commonwealth, thanks to a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
The five-year grant, a second round of funding from the foundation for the university’s Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing will enable researchers who develop technologies thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair to work closely with private industry. In 2006, the center was created with $16 million National Science Foundation grant and some $7 million in state matching funds.
The goal will be to apply the emerging technologies coming out of the center’s labs to real products made on the manufacturing floors at companies around the state.
“UMass’ impact on manufacturing and innovative technology and processes is going to be profound in the coming years,” said Eric T. Nakajima, senior innovation adviser for the state’s Housing and Economic Development Office, at an event announcing the grant Wednesday.
The grant is actually a renewal, with a caveat from the National Science Foundation that university researchers work with manufacturers in the private sector to help integrate the technology into their business. Companies will also be able to tap into the advanced technology generated and refined by the center.
UMass, industries to partner
James J. Watkins, one of the directors of the center, said this approach paves the way for partnerships between UMass and local industry – as well as the possibility of creating advanced manufacturing jobs anchored in the region.
“This is a nice day for us,” said Watkins. “Nanotechnology, in general, really has the potential to impact every aspect of our lives.”
UMass Chancellor Robert C. Holub said though the science can be complicated for lay people to understand, the grant will help “find cheaper and easier ways to manufacture amazing things that will improve our lives.”
Some of those products are solar panels, cell phones, computers and other high-tech products. Researchers are working at the nano scale to develop these types of technologies through what’s called “roll-to-roll nanoscale processing.”
Roll-to-roll processing is similar to how photographic film moves through a camera from one spindle to another or how newspapers are printed, but with chemical and physical processing in between. The process makes it possible to economically print electronic devices and other technology products on inexpensive plastic film, paper or foil. Researchers believe this can be done at high volumes and low costs.
A solar panel or computer chip, for example, is currently made out of many individual pieces grouped together. The work at UMass, however, may result in the manufacture of one pure sheet of that material, said John Nicholson, manager of the Nanofabrication Lab at the MassNanotech Institute on the Amherst campus.
This will make production much easier and cheaper for companies. “The idea is to make electronic devices at the speed you would normally print a page of a newspaper,” he said.
Wednesday’s event at the Conte Polymer Research Center featured several other speakers touting the significance of the grant, including industry executives and the center’s directors, Watkins and Mark T. Tuominen.
The grant renewed Wednesday has allowed the center to develop a custom manufacturing laboratory for its roll-to-roll processing work.
“The new experimental facility we are announcing with the award of this grant will enable companies to explore these emerging nanomanufacturing methods with us and to be part of the innovation process within the growing field of printed electronics,” said Michael F. Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement.
Keeping costs in check are key for manufacturing competitiveness in sectors such as energy generation and storage, chemical separations, flexible displays and electronics and sensors. Watkins believes nanotechnology can lead the way for improvements in these areas if the center and industry leaders are successful in designing new ways to mass produce high-technology devices cheaply and quickly.
Nakajima called the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing the “cornerstone” for helping manufacturers in Massachusetts remain competitive and be at the forefront in this important industry.
“This announcement is especially important for the state’s efforts to enhance the advancement of manufacturing companies,” he said.
Nakajima agreed that the technology may help add jobs to a manufacturing sector that already boasts a quarter of million workers in the state, but it also will help existing companies remain competitive and grow and enable emerging companies compete.
Industry leaders lauded the center and the university’s effort, saying that the research and ensuing collaboration will help boost their businesses and others like them.
James M. Casey, vice president of technology at FLEXcon of Spencer, said this is an encouraging time to be involved in such a partnership. He called the collaboration between industry and university researchers key in accelerating the company’s efforts in this emerging technology.
“The potential for new hires and employees is there as well,” Casey said. “In a nutshell, FLEXcon is pleased to be working with the university and encouraged with the progress so far and encouraged to dig in our heels and bring the technology to market.”
Another business, E-Ink, which makes the electronic display screens for electronic book devices such as Kindle, already uses the center and intends to do that more in the future, said Michael D. McCreary, deputy chief technology officer.
The Cambridge-based company has a manufacturing facility in South Hadley that is expanding rapidly. The company routinely sends one of its experts to the labs at the center because simulating the “clean room” is hard to do in the private environment, he said.