NIST Holds Microsystems/Nanosystems Meeting
by J. Storrs Hall
Albuquerque, NM 1/21/98: The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) held a meeting of approximately 100 representatives of industry, academia, and research labs to define a new ATP focus on microsystems and nanosystems. The ATP (Advanced Technology Program) is a funding activity by NIST that is intended to spur the commercialization of advanced technologies by cost-sharing their development where this would be too risky for the private sector alone.
The one-day meeting consisted of a series of white-paper presentations, followed by a breakdown into 8 working groups by areas of interest. The purpose of the meeting overall was to define the areas where a focussed program within the ATP would be most promising. Thus white papers had been solicited to propose cases where a moderate research or development effort lay between current practice and useful application. The workshop organizer and facilitator, Jack Boudreaux of NIST, broke the white papers down into categories of commercialization, packaging, nanosystems, infrastructure, optics, and devices; the working groups slightly rearranged this, primarily by way of adding a materials group.
The nanosystems group in the breakout included representatives of the Michigan Molecular Institute, Dendritech, the Air Force, Sandia National Labs, Boeing, and Kodak, as well as its chairman, Ken Smith of Rice University, and myself, representing the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. All of the other groups were fairly strongly focussed on MEMS (micro- electronic and mechanical systems), and our group was challenged to find specifics where existing or near-term nanotechnology could either enhance MEMS or be commercialized on its own.
The clearest case for enhancement was in the area of sensors; this forms a major portion of present-day MEMS applications. An example was given in Smith’s white paper, which showed the use of a fullerene nanotube as a scanning probe microscope tip extension. A significantly clearer and more accurate picture is obtained with the nanotube. Another existing enhancement is the addition of molecular constructions with chemical reactivity or specificity for detection, analysis, and filtering.
Nanoelectronics received a fair amount of discussion; advantages and applications are fairly straightforward, especially in conjunction with micromachines. Another area seen as promising was the application of micromachined scanning probe technology to mass storage in computers. The provision of a writable substrate for such a device would be an application of near-term nanotechnology.
The other main area considered by the nanosystems working group was surface physics and similar cases where macroscopic engineering approximations begin to break down with decreasing scale. A major problem in existing micromachines is the phenomenon of “stiction”, wherein adhesive and frictional forces between touching parts becomes much more significant than in macroscopic machines. Another phenomenon is that at small scales, turbulence in fluid flow disappears and all flow is laminar; this makes it easier to simulate but also means that shapes that would cause fluids to mix at larger scales do not work. It was proposed that nanoscience could help to analyze, and nanostructures to ameliorate, these and similar problems.
Most of the working groups, not just the nanosystems one, pointed to the development of software for analysis and design as both an immediate need and opportunity.
The Microsystem and Nanosystem focus now faces a standard review process within NIST. If successful, it is projected to come “on-line” in 1999. The technical contact is Jack Boudreaux, firstname.lastname@example.org. He points out that proposals for the area need not wait for the focus program, but can be entered in the general ATP competition immediately. For more information on the ATP in general, see http://www.atp.nist.gov, email email@example.com, or phone 1-800-ATP-FUND.