Grant to give students new tool for nano-revolution

The newest technology buzzword is no longer bigger, it is smaller – much smaller – and Portland State science students are getting the machinery to participate in this budding revolution.

A $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will equip the university with one of the most powerful tools for research into miniaturized technology. The equipment will be a dual beam focused ion beam (FIB) system, an advanced electron microscope that transmits findings to a computer rather than through an eyepiece. What it sees is far smaller than the human eye could visualize. The dual beam version will advance the ability to peek into the mysteries of matter and sub-matter even more effectively.

Jun Jiao, associate professor of physics and electrical engineering and director of the PSU Center for Electron Microscopy and Nanofabrication said they have not yet decided which microscope will be ordered.

The university will issue requests for proposal prior to awarding any contracts. The equipment will be made to order, a process grant specialist Bill Helsley predicted would require six to eight months.

Portland State is a key member of a league of scientific centers named: The Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) and findings with the new microscope will be shared with other members, which include several other Oregon universities.

“What made this proposal unique was that it was critical not just to the electron microscopy capacity of the facility at PSU, but that this equipment would benefit researchers throughout Oregon,” said Skip Rung, executive director of ONAMI.

In addition, high school teachers throughout the Northwest will be invited to work with the new instrument. The FIB will result in the creation of new courses for undergraduates and graduate students at PSU. There will be new special programs for underrepresented minorities and female students, encouraging them to pursue careers in science and engineering.

In the metric system, a nano equals a billionth and a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. To put it into perspective, a human blood cell is more than 2,000 nanometers long, too big to be considered nanoscale.

While bigger is better science seems to be stalling – witness all those pieces falling off the giant space rockets – the think smaller world is leaping ahead.

Portland State played host to a MicroNano Breakthrough Conference last week. A flier circulated at the conference listed some of the potential practical uses for nanoscience, some in early development and others near commercialization: microreactors the size of cigarette lighters that could run a laptop for days or weeks and pen-size reactors that could clean up toxic waste onsite by converting it into inert components.

–Additional reporting by Elisabeth Meyer and Justin Morrison