The Power of Nano

MIT.nano is the Institute’s new center for nanoscience and nanotechnology.

A nanometer is a mere one billionth of a meter. If you were to travel 50,000 nanometers, you’d only be halfway across the width of a human hair. But researchers have discovered that matter at this scale behaves in revolutionary ways. Twenty-five years of intensive research now gives us the power to reshape our world from the nanoscale up. It’s like lifting a corner of the periodic table and discovering another version underneath—one that lists the same elements, but with entirely new properties for the compounds and materials they form.

Faculty in departments across MIT are now taking advantage of our new power to synthesize and manipulate molecules with breathtaking precision. Everywhere they look, our faculty and students see thrilling potential for impact in areas like computing and communications, energy, health and health care, manufacturing, materials and structures, prototyping, sustainable futures, and toolmaking.

In fall 2018, the newly constructed MIT.nano opened at the heart of the campus, next to the Great Dome and just steps away from those who need it—currently estimated at more than 2,000 researchers per year.

At the nanoscale, a speck of dust is a wrecking ball

Just ask Farnaz Niroui SM ’13, PhD ’17, a new assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. When she was a graduate student at MIT researching energy-efficient electronics, Niroui says, making a single prototype was an expedition to six different facilities.

With her prototype packed in high-tech Tupperware, her stops were: initial assembly in Building 13; Building 24 for electron beam lithography; Building 39 to develop the resist; Building 13 to evaporate a layer of metal; Building 18 to grow molecules on top; and Building 38 for testing. It’s time-consuming and inefficient. “If I got a dust particle on the device or if my sample was exposed to air, I had to repeat the entire process,” she says.

MIT.nano creates a single, comprehensive facility for nanoscale work, allowing our researchers to do more. They’ll have broader access to the tools they need. They’ll conduct their work—from imaging to synthesizing to prototyping—entirely within the building’s protective environment. And they’ll spend less time waiting because, at 200,000 square feet, MIT.nano doubles the campus capacity for nano innovation.

To find the future, follow the students

They’ll tell you where the world is headed by what they choose to study and the skills they seek to master. Mechanical Engineering first offered an undergraduate course specifically dedicated to nano fundamentals— 2.674 Micro/Nano Engineering Laboratory—in 2008. Today, to meet student demand, the department offers more than a dozen nano-related courses that teach the theoretical foundation, applications, and tools of nanoscience and nanotechnology.

“Students are a bellwether of the technologies on the rise. They often know before we do what they’re going to need when they graduate,” says Anette (Peko) Hosoi, professor of mechanical engineering.

MIT.nano marks the beginning of a new era of nano education at MIT. Classroom and learning spaces with advanced teaching tools are integrated throughout the building, and new undergraduate chemistry teaching labs sit on the top floor—making MIT.nano a training ground for the next generation of science and engineering leadership.

Published in May 2016.

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