Sandia LabNews

Labs, UNM form 'nanoscience alliance'

Nanoscience Alliance agreement signed by LANL, UNM, and Sandia during Aug. 7 ceremony

Though a bright morning sun that shone in the face of about 100 spectators caused considerable seat shifting, few if any left the courtyard of the Technology Ventures Corp. on Aug. 7 before a formal memorandum of understanding was signed to increase cooperation in nanoscale research among Los Alamos National Laboratory, the University of New Mexico, and Sandia.

Signing for a "New Mexico Nanoscience Alliance" to strengthen the framework of inter-institutional efforts were the presidents of those institutions — respectively, John Browne, Bill Gordon, and Paul Robinson. New Mexico’s two US senators and a number of representatives of private industry looked on.

While cooperation between the three institutions already exists, the statement of intent specifically suggests that Sandia and Los Alamos will, when appropriate, help UNM secure nanotech funding from DOE and other funding sources; that the two national labs will work with UNM to establish more joint professorships in nanoscience at UNM; and that UNM will work toward establishing a graduate nanomaterials science degree program.

Meeting co-chair Terry Michalske (1140) said in opening remarks, "By definition, nano refers to things that are incredibly small. . . . However, the excitement surrounding nano is enormous: new science, new properties of matter, and the promise of new and revolutionary technologies."

Sen. Pete Domenici helped the intra-state mood by praising "a very bright young man" at Sandia who years ago gave the senator his first explanation of the microworld. Domenici said that the young man was so well-spoken and well-versed in his subject that the senator was sure his explicator was from Cal Tech or MIT. "When I learned he was a graduate of UNM," he said, turning at the podium to look behind him at UNM President Gordon, "I couldn’t have been prouder."

(The Sandian was Steve Rodgers, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UNM in the mid-1980s. "I told Pete I was from UNM and that seemed to make his day," remembers Steve, who recently left Sandia to become one of the founders of MEMX, a Sandia micro-optical start-up in the telecommunications field.)

Sen. Jeff Bingaman mentioned "hoping to capture a substantial amount of funding" for the next-generation lighting initiative, a branch of nanotechnology intended to move the country more quickly into light-emitting diodes and light-conducting plastics at considerable savings in energy and costs.

(The Alliance agreement may be more potent if DOE funds a joint nanotechnology science center between Sandia and Los Alamos. Currently, says Don Parkin, deputy division director of Materials Science and Technology at LANL, there are $4 million of Plant Engineering and Design funds in President Bush’s budget to fund conceptual design for three nanotechnology centers. Parkin, along with UNM’s Steve Brueck, co-hosted the meeting with Terry Michalske.)

UNM President Gordon mentioned the "strong nanotechnology effort in UNM’s medical school," and said UNM’s mission in the alliance would be to generate a new generation of scientists and engineers, develop a graduate program in nanoscience, and work toward joint professorships between both national labs and UNM.

Keynote speaker R. Stanley Williams, a Fellow at Hewlett-Packard Labs, described a stunning assortment of nanotechnology possibilities, including biocide molecules attached to nanoparticles unable to pass through the walls of healthy cells but able to pass through cancer cell walls to kill them. He said other interesting nanopossibilities could be found at But, as a kind of footnote, he cautioned resistance to "nanotech infatuation" and encouraged continued funding for the wide range of sciences and engineering that form the basis for the field. "Don’t starve the other sciences," he said. "I don’t know what the ‘next thing’ will be, but there will be a next thing."

Said Bill Garcia, a spokesperson for Intel Corp., "Computer chips, which have fueled today’s scientific advances, need nanoscience research to lead the way" because silicon isn’t necessarily the ideal material from which to make chips. "On a nanometer scale, silicon fabrication is as difficult as any other material. New materials need to be researched."

Former Sandian Tom Brennan, CEO of UNM start-up Zia Laser, said his New Mexico-based company had received $6 million in venture capital funding — which he described as an amazing feat in the current economic climate — for his lab’s work in quantum dot laser diodes 20 nanometers in diameter. He praised work at Sandia and other scientific institutions that made the advance possible.

Jim Prendergast of Motorola described his company’s interest in building materials from molecules "inherently nanoscale that will self-assemble into functioning materials, rather than taking out material we don’t want in order to create an object."

Browne said better technology would "tremendously impact quantum computing if we can develop materials at the nanoscale." Such materials could also help detect biological threats, and improve work on quantum dots and magnetic resonances.

Paul Robinson, who spoke last, quipped, "Everything’s now been said, just not everyone has said it." He praised the National Competitive Technology Transfer Act of 1989 "that changed the way the national labs operate," allowing them to begin or augment outside business and university interactions.

"I’m very happy," Paul said. "Let’s sign."

And they did.