The Future of Small

Nanotechnology
professor trains the
next-generation
workforce

By Jim H. Smith

In 2008, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) — the partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts to help advance nanotech research — estimated there were more than 800 nanoproducts on the market. Not bad, considering that the very concept is still new, its evolution mostly a late 20th-century phenomenon.

Three or four new nanoproducts, developed for a host of industries, were debuting weekly, PEN said. From medical applications to automobile airbag and biohazard sensors to increasingly efficient solar cells, nanotechnology — the study of atomic- and molecular-scale matter and the capacity to manipulate it and put it to productive use — would seem poised to change the world.

Associate Professor Howard Wang’s enthusiasm, however, is tempered by experience. He knows that not every new product is a game-changer. Nanoscale manufacturing, though enormously exciting, is also extraordinarily challenging. “For performance, smaller is definitely better,” he says, “but it’s also more unstable — difficult to make and difficult to use.”

“There’s some disappointment in the way nanotechnology has developed,” he adds, measuring his criticism. “It has not yet fulfilled its promise to revolutionize the world. We can produce things better, lighter and cheaper, but it hasn’t achieved its true commercial potential yet.”

A manufacturer and an educator, Wang is on a mission to change that. And the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, future engineering students and area electronics manufacturers all stand to benefit in the bargain.

Soft Nanomaterials and FlexE

Wang was an undergraduate physics major at Peking University, in the late 1980s, when he first heard about “buckyballs.” The spherical, hollow-centered carbon molecules — part of a class of multifaceted carbon molecules called fullerenes — had only recently been discovered by Robert Curl, Harold Kroto and Richard Smalley, who would be honored with the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Their discovery was one of nanotechnology’s early signposts. And it was, for Wang, the moment when he first began to consider the future of “small.” After earning his bachelor’s in physics in 1992, he completed his master’s at the University of Houston and his doctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, earning his PhD in materials science and engineering in 1999. After postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Technological University in 2002.

Howard WangFour years later he joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Binghamton, attracted by the Watson School’s increasing investment in nanotechnology and what he saw as “a great career opportunity” in the thick of flexible electronics (FlexE) development. FlexE refers to the assembly of electronic circuits on flexible plastic substrates. It’s a burgeoning field, and Wang’s interdisciplinary laboratory reflects its demand for research in a plethora of components and technologies. “We want to understand the fundamentals of synthesis, processing and structure/property relations of soft matter and nanomaterials” — such as polymers, colloids, lipids, gels, nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes — “and explore novel applications of soft nanomaterials,” he says. “Soft nanomaterials” is an apt description for the electronic inks and pastes he’d begun developing before he came to Binghamton. Infused with silver and zinc oxide nanoparticles, they could function as conductors and semiconductors. And they had immense potential. Think, for instance, about video screens as thin as a wafer or temperature-controlled clothing that could be swiftly “painted” by manufacturers, dramatically shaving production costs. “I see great opportunities for success using nanotechnology in flatware electronics,” he says. “The potential and the range of industries that could benefit are practically limitless.”

In collaboration with Zhihao Yang and Tom Xu, Wang created a company called NanoMas Technologies, Inc. to address that potential. Launched in the University’s Start-Up Suite, it has lab facilities in nearby Endicott, N.Y. The company wasted no time establishing itself as a leader in the nascent conductive-inks field. It currently produces two trademarked products — NanoSilver and NanoGold — and is developing other inorganic nanoparticle and polymer semiconductor inks and electroluminescent inks for photovoltaic and printed electronics applications.

A NUE focus

This research, Wang’s passion for the past two decades, understandably informs his role as an educator. Two years ago — together with Changhong Ke, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Kenneth Chiu, assistant professor of computer science; Alok Rastogi, visiting professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Daryl Santos, professor of system and industrial engineering — Wang landed a nearly $200,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop nanotechnology undergraduate education (NUE) for Binghamton. Wang is principal investigator on the grant, and with additional resources from the University and the Center of Excellence in Small Scale Systems Integration and Packaging (S3IP), the NUE program focuses on nanotech applications in flexible electronics (FlexE) manufacturing.

Graduates who participated in this NSF-funded effort will have been seasoned by not only four years of courses, but also “real world” design projects, seminars, extensive research and cyber-infrastructure experiences. “We aim to train a technically sound, socially conscious, and globally aware U.S. scientific and engineering workforce for the emerging industry of FlexE manufacturing,” Wang says.

He’s making brisk progress. Already he has developed or participated in three undergraduate-level nano-courses. “When I joined Binghamton and introduced my undergrad course there were a handful of students,” he says, “but now we reach capacity regularly. More students have become aware of the great opportunity that nanotech and FlexE represents.” In addition to taking the courses, 53 senior undergraduate engineering students have participated in 13 diverse nanotech and flexible engineering projects, and NUE senior project symposia have been held each semester since fall 2008. Since spring 2009, experts from industry, national labs and other universities have come to Binghamton for a series of popular nanotechnology and FlexE lectures.

“The project I worked on really stretched me as an engineer,” says Heath Gregory ’09, one of three members of a senior team that developed a virtual chemical laboratory for synthesis of silver nanoparticles last year. “There’s definitely growing interest. I’d never heard of nanotech in high school, but many engineering students were interested at Binghamton.” Area electronics companies stand to benefit from the NUE program, says Stephen Gonya, a doctoral candidate who took Wang’s nanotechnology in small-scale-systems course last spring. A research scientist in the materials and components laboratory at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors in Owego, Gonya says, “Lockheed has a significant interest in nanotech. It’s important technology and it will improve products tremendously. But it’s important to keep in mind that while there is a need for basic research, only a small amount translates into real products. That’s why trained engineers with nanotech experience will be important.”

Wang is addressing that very issue. “More of the students who enroll now think of nanotech as a career,” he says. “We are training the next-generation workforce.” l

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