Feature Stories

All Roads Lead to Nano

UMass Amherst paves the way for unprecedented expansion in nanotech communication
  • from left- Jeff Morse, Jessica Adamick, Rebecca Resnik-Zellen, and Mark Tuominen

Nanoinformatics 2020 Roadmap is the first broad-based attempt to comprehensively meet the needs and goals of nanoinformatics.

Massachusetts has a rich tradition of innovation built around highways. Those who were working in the area at the time have tales to tell about the technology growth along Route 128, spurring the “Massachusetts Miracle” in the 1980s. Now, with the development of a new nanoinformatics roadmap, in large part due to the leadership of the National Nanomanufacturing Network (NNN), part of the Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing (CHM) at UMass Amherst, we are witnessing the onset of a decade-long, unprecedented expansion in the communications of nanotech knowledge and innovation. New “highways” connecting academics, industry leaders, and government officials, are being paved from some of the field’s earliest nano-roads built here at UMass Amherst.

At the intersection of nanotechnology, computer science, and data management, nanoinformatics is the key to determining which information is relevant to the nanoscale science and engineering community. The “Nanoinformatics 2020 Roadmap” identifies the field’s current stakeholders, projects, needs, capabilities, and connections; and provides a realistic timeframe to establish an effective system of nanoinformatics data, tools, and infrastructure. According to Jessica Adamick, digital librarian and manager of the NNN’s website, InterNano, the roadmap is the first broad-based attempt to comprehensively meet the needs and goals of nanoinformatics.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the plan arose from a workshop of 80 nanoinformatics experts brought together by the NNN. “We played a leading role alongside several groups who felt that this needed to be done,” says NNN director Mark Tuominenphysics. “We strategized so this road mapping would be steered by and for the nanoinformatics community and no single institution or government agency would dominate.”

Literally thousands of groups in the nanoscale science and engineering community do independent investigations, producing valuable information, but they are unable to fully access and use each other’s developments, according to Tuominen. “We realize that there’s been a tremendous effort over the last ten years—new manufacturing methods and nanoscale applications in medicine and energy, and lots more,” he says. “But presently, there is no way to mine for this data.” Unimaginable amounts of polished and usable technology are collecting dust.

For example, CHM is using brand new materials and techniques for nano-manufacturing. However, there’s not much information on the properties of the materials or the rules of using these processes. Tuominen likens the situation to a recipe for scrambled eggs: the burner can’t be too high or too low. “It’s similarly true with these processes. There are optimum conditions,” he says, “and we need to communicate them to people developing manufacturing procedures in the industry.”

How has UMass Amherst come to play first fiddle in this prominent, nationally organized nanoinformatics network? As early as 2003, UMass Amherst was one of the nation’s leading universities in nanotechnology research funding. So, when the Mass Nanotech Institute, an on-campus, eight-department unit of acclaimed researchers in nanotech sciences, proposed to form CHM, the National Science Foundation provided support. In 2006 the center opened its doors, with a chartered role to act as a facilitating hub for a network designed to create an information clearinghouse.

In addition to its established history in nanotechnology research, UMass Amherst has an attractive direct regional link to industry leaders in Massachusetts. CHM focuses on processes that can be scaled up to manufacturing, and that means tapping the state’s established paper and plastics industries to implement preexistent roll-to-roll technology in the making of flexible electronics and high-technology devices such as solar cells, cell phone displays, batteries and sensors. As testament to its good work, the National Science Foundation recently awarded the center a $20 million expansion of the original grant.

“We called the roadmap ‘2020’ because we estimated it would take about 10 years to really implement this in an effective way,” says Tuominen. In the next couple of years, we can expect to see the network launching some pilot projects—a set of metadata standards to make the information searchable, visualization tools to utilize the data, and a mode of automated data collection.

There is much to be done. Although it will take place on many campuses, on many manufacturing floors, and by several government agencies, the crucial intersections of this unimaginably vast network are being designed at UMass Amherst.

David Bartone '12G