February 20, 2011
By: by Larry Rulison, Business Writer, Times Union
ALBANY -- What if a company spent $1 billion developing a new computer chip and federal regulators then determined that some of the material in its components were a health hazard and ordered the chip pulled off the market?
Researchers at the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering are hoping to avoid that possibility with the newly created NanoHealth and Safety Center.
The $10 million research program is a joint effort between the NanoCollege and Sematech, the computer chip research consortium that recently moved from Austin, Texas, to Albany. Also involved is the Sematech subsidiary known as the International Sematech Manufacturing Initiative.
NanoCollege Chief Executive Officer Alain Kaloyeros unveiled the new initiative Tuesday along with Sematech CEO Dan Armbrust. The two organizations will split the initial startup costs, and additional private-sector support is expected as the center grows.
"What we are trying to do here is be proactive at the research level to assess these effects," Kaloyeros said, "even before it reaches manufacturing."
Kaloyeros said he does not know of any situation in which a computer chip was forced off the market because of health concerns. But he said that research is being done into the safety of nanoscale-size materials such as carbon nanotubes that are used by researchers across the world but have never been used in commercial products. Some have suggested that tiny nanomaterials could be small enough to pose a risk to the respiratory system if inhaled.
Thomas Begley, a professor at the NanoCollege who is director of its Systems Toxicology Laboratory, will be director of the new center, and Dr. Sara Brenner, who leads the school's NanoHealth Initiatives, will chair a steering committee that will oversee the project.
"To my knowledge, this is the first time where there is a proactive effort at the research level," Kaloyeros said.
The center will also look for new ways that computer chip factories can use less water and chemicals in the manufacturing process. A typical chip fabrication plant uses millions of gallons of water a day and requires backup systems that also use water.
The impact would not only be environmental, but the industry would save money by using fewer natural resources.
"How do we make our factories more efficient?" Armbrust said.
Kaloyeros said the center is expected to create 100 new jobs at the college within the next five years. More than 2,500 people currently work there.