In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the elements of industrial progress were plain to see: Ore, steam, mass production. Applying their powers of discovery and innovation, MIT’s scientists and engineers optimized such materials and processes, driving economic growth. In the century since, the ingredients of industrial progress have become so much more difficult to visualize that they can almost seem unreal. But today, the advances possible in the nearly invisible realm of nanotechnology hold very real promise for creating new knowledge, new answers to urgent problems, new industries and new jobs.
Nanotechnology refers to the exploration and creation of unprecedented new materials and devices by controlling matter at the scale of billionths of a meter. As we enhance our ability to assemble atoms into deliberately useful structures, we open the door to substances with a phenomenal spectrum of possible properties. Thanks to rapid advances in microscopy, lithography, and chemical and biological synthesis, engineers and scientists at MIT and other top institutions are orchestrating formidable feats of nanoscale innovation — from high-performance technologies for generating and storing energy, to medical devices and therapies that will enable “personalized medicine,” to strategies for making systems and substances, from computation to concrete, greener and more effective.
In this issue of SPECTRVM, you’ll encounter MIT faculty who are pushing the boundaries of nanotechnology to develop transformative new ideas. Professor Michael Strano layers graphene — a form of pure carbon arranged in a lattice just one atom thick — to enable the material’s use in novel electronics. He also creates self-assembling molecules that can turn sunlight into electricity. Professor Krystyn Van Vliet combines minuscule mechanical and chemical forces to rapidly map the behavior of engineered materials, and measures interactions between molecules on the surface of a cell. And Professor Feng Zhang engineers extraordinarily precise tools for manipulating genes to understand the role they play in neurological disorders.
These examples offer only a glimpse of nanotechnology research at MIT — but they illustrate the field’s broad interdisciplinary foundation. Not surprisingly, given the Institute’s deep strength in systems engineering; process design; electronics and computer science; materials science and engineering; mechanical engineering; chemistry; physics; and biology, and its thriving culture of collaboration, MIT is helping to shape the future of nanoscale innovation. Our researchers not only draw together collaborators from varied fields but often bridge different areas of expertise themselves; an ongoing challenge will be for nanotechnologists to unite the many contributing disciplines with a common language of exploration and invention.
Ultimately, as our nanoscale research generates new scientific understanding, it will also give rise to novel materials with sharply improved or entirely new properties — materials that could substantially reshape fields from biomedical imaging to solar power to building materials. And in an era of universal interest in creating good, lasting jobs, nanotechnology will also be essential to accelerating progress in advanced manufacturing — an area of intense and growing focus at MIT. This past summer, Dow Chemical Co. CEO Andrew Liveris and I were asked to co-chair the new federal initiative called the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP). By bringing together leading US manufacturers, top research universities and the federal agencies that fund innovation, AMP will develop an action plan to help the nation seize the opportunities of advanced manufacturing. Capitalizing on the new materials and processes of nanotechnology will figure centrally in that work.
By investing in our nanotechnology-related infrastructure and intellectual ecosystem, MIT is already laying the groundwork for new manufacturing paradigms — a world in which desktop machines compete with billion-dollar fabrication facilities, and in which an array of nanomanufactured materials far beyond silicon wafers become the backbone of a new generation of sensing, computation, and communication devices. By opening up vast new applications and markets, such new paradigms offer the surest path to renewed economic growth while providing new tools to confront some of society’s most daunting challenges.
More than 50 years ago, describing the potential of nanotechnology before the field yet had a name, physicist Richard Feynman ’39 famously observed that “There is plenty of room at the bottom.” And there still is: making clean energy feasible; improving health care through personalization; strengthening and greening our infrastructure; redesigning information technology to deliver more power with less energy. In all these areas and more, nanotechnology holds the very tiny but immeasurably powerful keys. I am delighted that MIT will also use them to help restart our economic engine.