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Feature Stories

Small Scale, Big Innovation
Bringing nanotech wonders to market
Post-doctoral researcher Jacob John with a nanoimprinted flexible film

“It’s where we want to go in the future. One of the things we’re working on is commercial applications for carbon nanotubes, which have electrical properties that give them amazing potential.” 
- Thomas Hill

Whether you’ve realized it or not, the odds are you have had a close encounter with nanomanufacturing. Nanotech products, made by working with matter on the atomic and molecular scale, are now commonplace on your skin (moisturizers), in your pants (stain resistant fabrics), against your ears (cell phones), and right before your eyes (e-reader screens). UMass Amherst, a nanotechnology leader, is striving to help industry bring greater nanotech wonders to market through its Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing (CHM).

The MassNanoTech Institute, an on-campus, eight-department unit of acclaimed researchers in nanotech sciences, opened CHM in 2006 with $16 million from the National Science Foundation and the goal of disseminating nanotechnology know-how. Recently, the center has concentrated on research that can capitalize on the historical strengths of Massachusetts manufacturers in roll-to-roll technology, the process used to make and print paper and sometimes plastics. Scientists at CHM are focusing on developing methods that can be scaled up to implement existing roll-to-roll technology to make flexible electronics and high-technology devices such as solar cells, cell phone displays, batteries, and sensors. Consequently, moribund Massachusetts mills may one day print electronics instead of paper.

Thomas Hill ’02 works in research and development at one of CHM’s industry partners, FLEXcon, a top polymer manufacturer that utilizes roll-to-roll technology. In the company’s Spencer, Mass., headquarters, he works with flexible electronics, such as the conductive films used in touch screens. Farsighted FLEXcon is building a two story, 20,000-square-foot research and innovation center that will be ready for nanomanufacturing. “It’s where we want to go in the future,” says Hill. “One of the things we’re working on is commercial applications for carbon nanotubes, which have electrical properties that give them amazing potential. For instance, you could use them to make flexible electronic displays on plastic instead of stationary displays on glass.”

Access to the facilities, early research results, and vast expertise of UMass Amherst will help companies like FLEXcon bring nanotech from the lab to the factory floor at a lower cost and with higher productivity, says Hill, who did undergraduate research on nanotechnology with Professor of Chemistry Dhandapani Venkataraman and earned his PhD at Boston College.

Down the road, researchers and nanomanufacturers working hand-in-hand with roll-to-roll technology will bring science fiction fantasies to life. “There might be T-shirts with TVs on them,” Hill says, “or electronic newspapers that you can roll up and put in your pocket, or other inventions that go beyond Star Trek.”

Reprinted with Permission, UMass Magazine Spring 2012