April 30, 2010

"Nanotechnology": Seeing Big Things In Small Packages

By: by Virginia Kropf,


A nanometer is not a piece of test equipment, as one Alabama resident thought, until visiting the University of Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering last week.

The contingent of Genesee County residents and officials who visited Albany and Saratoga Springs agree what they learned was mind-boggling.

The group, all with an interest in the proposed advanced technology and science park proposed for the town of Alabama, toured the new state-of-the-art College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, the first and only college in the world dedicated to research, development, education and deployment in the emerging disciplines of nanoscience, nanoengineering, nanobioscience and nanoeconomics.

If approved, the Western New York STAMP would include companies engaged in advanced technology, or "nanotechnology."

Until now, most of the visitors had never heard of nanotechnology.

Michael Fancher, vice president of Business Development and Economic Outreach for the college, explained it this way:

"We are not learning a new element, we are learning new uses on an atomic scale," he said. "Nano captures kids' attention."

Nanotechnology is the miniaturizing technology that makes iPhones, computers and global positioning systems do more work faster. It is what makes solar energy generation equipment work and be more efficient. It is the concept behind self-cleaning windows and age-defying makeup.

Fancher described a nanometer as "one-billionth of a meter." Another way to describe it is "working at the scale of a molecule." If one hair were split into 100,000 strands, the result would be one nanometer.

At that scale, materials have different chemical and physical properties than those of the same materials in bulk, Fancher explained.

Nanotechnology can be applied to energy and the environment, health care, defense, electronics and software/media/telecommunications.

The biomedical industry, using nanotechnology, may be able to measure blood sugar without puncturing the skin or develop an instrument to automatically do the work of one's pancreas.

Nanoparticles are already widely used in certain commercial consumer products, such as suntan lotions.

Information found on the Internet reports one company manufactures a nanocrystal wound dressing with built-in antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. On the horizon is toothpaste that coats, protects and repairs damaged enamel, as well as self-cleaning shoes that never need polishing.

Each "classroom" in the new College of Nanotechnology and Engineering is actually a working miniature of an advanced fabrication facility. Students work in sterile suits in "clean rooms," where no contamination or foreign particles are allowed.

"This industry operates at a standard unmatched, even by pharmaceutical companies," Fancher said.

To understand the investment an advanced manufacturing facility represents, one piece of equipment (there were dozens) in the ultraviolet lithography lab at the college cost $65 million.

Fancher also said advanced technology companies are not footloose and fancy free.

"When they make an investment to come into your area, they stay," he said. "They're not like a distributor's warehouse who picks up and moves if they get a better offer. Once they come in, they are long-term players."

The tour also included a visit to Hudson Valley Community College's innovative new 42,000-square-foot Tec-Smart facility in the town of Malta, near Albany, where students are trained in semiconductor manufacturing technology, as well as classroom and distance learning training on the theory, design and installation of renewable energy technologies, including solar, solar thermal, wind, geothermal and alternative fuels.

The facility was built as a showcase for energy efficient technology, incorporating solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal heating and air conditioning systems and passive solar construction into its design. The building has attained a gold rating in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design by the U.S. Green Building Council and is on track for a platinum certification.

It costs less than $6,000 per year for a person to go through a two-year technology program to gain certification in these advanced manufacturing technologies. A person wishing to work in the field of nanotechnology must have a high school degree with a certification like that received from Tec-Smart, or a two-year college degree, according to Genesee County Economic Development Center director Steve Hyde.

This would qualify an individual for jobs starting at $40,000 to $45,000. Higher degrees, of course, command higher wages, some topping $100,000.

These are the types of jobs which the WNY STAMP would provide in the town of Alabama. Typical tenants would be solar cell manufacturers, semiconductor manufacturers, bio-medical product manufacturers and flat display panel and other high tech-oriented firms, Hyde said.

Don Parker of Alabama, former town assessor for 25 years and lifelong resident, hopes to see the Science Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Project fly in the town.

"We've got one chance for something like this," he said. "We better not mess it up."

Another resident who didn't want to be named, commented the town of Alabama has been dormant for 100 years.

"This is our chance to move 100 years into the future," he said.