Nanotechnology: SE Michigan's Industrial Revolution

It's one-billionth of a meter. One thousandth of the width of a human hair. Ten to the power of minus 9. The diameter of three to six atoms (depending on the element). All of these are ways to describe a nano — a small word at the root of a growing scientific field, nanotechnology, that's bringing big business to Southeast Michigan.

Tiny but mighty

Stated simply, nanotechnology is the science of manipulating and constructing objects at the atomic level. The field's vast potential stems from the fact that substances at nanoscale levels often possess different properties than they do at larger levels and consequently can be made into products with novel characteristics and applications. Scientists have been toiling with nanoscale science for hundreds of years, but it was only in the last decade that "nanotechnology" became a research priority of the federal government and entered the layman's lexicon. And just as the public was eating tortilla chips made from genetically modified corn before it had heard of "bioengineering," the uses of nanotechnology have outstripped the public awareness of what it is or where it's done.

Nanotechnology applications encompass everything from medicine, sports and food to communications, clothing, and environmental protection. The landscape of products and systems potentially affected by this emerging technology is as vast and wide as daily life itself. And needless to say, the economic implications are tremendous. Eager to transform our stumbling economy, Michigan has committed itself to developing a "technology corridor" in southeast Michigan in order to support new industries and related job markets. Local universities have placed a heavy emphasis on nanotech research and their faculties, most notably those at the University of Michigan, have started up a number of nanotech-based firms.

"There are certain pockets around the country that appear to have a concentration of people working in the area of nanotechnology, and [southeast Michigan] is one of them," says Rob Toth, president of Dexter-based Dexter Research Center. "This technology corridor and the universities involved in the research really provide a good environment for growth in nanotechnology."

Dexter, which was started by Toth's father, Bob Toth, in 1977, manufactures an infrared sensor using a Micro Electrical Mechanical System (MEMS), a technology that interconnects with nanotechnology. Dexter began working on MEMS devices with the University of Michigan in the 1980s to stay competitive.

"The technology we used to create our devices was considered state of the art in the late 70s, but technology has demanded that we adjust our strategy," says Rob Toth. "The markets we serve are pushing for smaller and cheaper, and that can only be done in MEMS or nanotechnology. If we want to continue to exist, we need to be able to continue to develop systems based on these platforms."

Location, location, location

For Dexter, location has been everything. "It's been very important to be near the universities," says Toth. "I'm not sure we would have found another academic partner had it not been for our proximity to the University of Michigan."

Of specific importance to local nanotechnology firms, notes Toth, is the Engineering Research Center for Wireless Integrated MicroSystems (WIMS), which was established in 2000 by the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University. The Ann Arbor-based center, which is funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is merging micropower circuits, wireless interfaces, biomedical and environmental sensors and subsystems, and advanced packaging to create microsystems that will permeate virtually every aspect of society during the next 20 years.

WIMS Director Ken Wise, a professor of electrical engineering computer science at the University of Michigan, calls the center "a bridge between electronics and all kinds of applications in the environment, health care, security," and other domains. The type of research done at the center, he notes, could one day lead to prosthetics that restore hearing to the deaf.

The center this month dedicated an expansion of its $100 million "clean room," or semiconductor processing laboratory, that makes it "one of the best facilities in the country at a university for performing research on nanotechnology and solid-state devices," says Wise.

"Many industrial firms use our clean room to develop prototype devices," he says. "We really act as a resource in providing processes and fabrication capabilities in the industry."

In general, says Wise, "the facilities here in Michigan are really competitive with any facilities in the country, especially in microsystems and quantum devices. We continue to spin out startups in the areas of microsytems and sensors, and we're very close to achieving a critical mass in this area. I think this could be very important for Southeast Michigan. The clean room we dedicated is definitely a catalyst for jobs creation and it's really changing the high tech environment here. It's providing a resource to get a lot of the high tech industry started here and also attracted here."

Among the start-ups gaining ground is Ann Arbor-based NanoBio Corporation, a biopharmaceutical company working to develop new products for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases. Founded in 2000 as a spin-off from the University of Michigan's Center for Biologic Nanotechnology, NanoBio has received some $31 million in federal and state grants and $30 million in private funding to develop anitinfectants and mucosal vaccines that may hit the commercial market as early as 2010.

Then there's K-space, also in Ann Arbor, a leading manufacturer of in-situ thin-film and wafer characterization technologies. These products are attached to the machinery used by manufacturers of nanoscale materials to provide information on temperature, stress and other indicators of whether the production process — being too small to see with the naked eye — is occurring properly. The company, founded in 1992 by two University of Michigan scientists, has seen its sales rise from $2 million to $5 million a year, according to sales and marketing director Eric Friedman.

The company is building a new facility on two acres in Dexter, where it will move in about month. Friedman said the move "wouldn't have been possible five years ago," crediting the firm's new mobility to pro-startup efforts by the state.

"We've only able to do this because of some of the tax abatements and other financing made available, which has a lot to do with the area and Michigan trying to reward and help stimulate businesses not necessarily tied to the auto industries," Friedman says.

The third industrial revolution

Oakland University in Rochester is also getting in on the nanotech game. In 2006 it signed on a nanotechnologist to be its new vice provost for research. Tachung C. Yih, who came to Oakland from the University of Texas San Antonio, predicts that nanotechnology will give birth to the "third industrial revolution." What this means, he says, is that nanotechnology will revolutionize health care and environmental protection in the same way that transportation and manufacturing were revolutionized during the first industrial revolution and computation and communications were revolutionized during the second.

Yih says he was drawn to Oakland University by "the determination of the president and provost to move OU to the next level" of research. Since taking the helm, he has steered the university into partnerships with local firms to focus on structural DNA, the application of nanoparticles to solar sells, and the development of student and faculty internships. He has also helped lead the university's efforts to collaborate with William Beaumont Hospitals on the creation of new medical school that will begin training "technically savvy" clinicians beginning in 2010.

Yih also has helped organize a major opportunity for researchers, academics, entrepreneurs and manufacturers to discuss research, uses and ethics surrounding nanotechnology. The event, the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Conference, will take place in August at Oakland University and is drawing participants from across the country as well as from Jordan, Mexico, Germany and the United Kingdom. Yih says it will be an opportunity for parties with a stake in the future of nanotechnology to "exchange new ideas and concepts and collaborate."

"'Multidisciplinary' is the key term," says Yih. "There is no way anyone can carry out a project by him or herself. We need to find the right partners to work out a problem together."

Lucy Ament is a freelance writer living in Grosse Pointe. Her last article for Metromode was Retail by Design.


Dexter Research Center assembly room- Dexter

Nanotech chip on the tip- Dexter

Rob Toth, president of
Dexter Research Center - Dexter

WIMS Director Ken Wise, a professor of electrical engineering computer science at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor

University of Michigan nanotechnology research lab - Ann Arbor

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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