February 17, 2009

Big Savings For A Nano Project

By: by Larry Rulison, Business Writer, Times Union


ALBANY - If someone could sell you something that normally costs as much as $2,000 for $15, would you take it?

That idea has benefited a local printing company that is supplying scientists at Albany NanoTech with thin-film photomasks used to create tiny biomedical devices such as a lab-on-a-chip.

The company, AM&J Digital of North Pearl Street in Albany, does traditional printing for trade shows and marketing departments.

But a few years ago, a nanobiology student at the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering approached AM&J to see if it could provide researchers at Albany NanoTech with cheaper film used in traditional printing jobs.

The hope was that it could replace an expensive type of film used to make tiny biomedical chips being developed to diagnose disease and do instant medical testing. The film is laid upon quartz or glass to create what's known as a photomask that is similar to a picture negative.

During photolithography, ultraviolet light is projected through one of these photomasks to pattern silicon wafers with tiny biomedical devices.

Traditional photomasks can cost between $400 and $2,000 each, and researchers at Albany NanoTech found that the cost was prohibitive to rapid testing of new devices. They sought cheaper ways to make prototypes.

That's where AM&J came in, with the ability to provide cheap film for the photomasks at just a fraction of the cost.

Skip Gerwin, system manager for AM&J, said his company had never done anything like it before. The company makes the photomasks using its laser image setter.

"I never even thought it was a possibility," Gerwin said. "It's pretty neat."

Gerwin said the company is checking with other research institutions to see if they would also like to have photomasks done. Researchers e-mail PDF files with the patterns they need on the photomasks to AM&J, and the job is done within 24 hours. Gerwin says the company is doing between 100 and 150 of the photomasks annually and is hoping to grow that as it contacts other universities.

"Anything in this business environment where you can get money for the company is a positive thing," he said.

Nathaniel Cady, an assistant professor of nanobioscience at the NanoCollege, has been using the photomasks for research in his lab at the Albany NanoTech complex. He uses them for what he calls "rapid prototyping" of devices, and he says that the real benefit is that he has more money left over to spend on biology rather than on manufacturing.

The more expensive photomasks are needed when feature sizes on chips drop down to the 1 micron size.

Meanwhile, officials at the NanoCollege believe using AM&J is a demonstration of the economic ripple effect that research at the school has on the Capital Region. For instance, a local plumbing company, Campito Plumbing and Heating in Latham, did the HVAC work at the $4.5 billion Albany NanoTech complex even though it previously was not involved in the industry.

"These are traditional companies that are tapping into the opportunities brought about by nanotechnology," said NanoCollege spokesman Steve Janack.