Nano-Engineering Institute Focuses on the Future

December 2007
By Henry S. Kenyon

The goal of Sandia National Laboratories’ National Institute for Nano-Engineering (NINE) is to train the next generation of U.S. scientists, says NINE program manager Regan Stinnett (c). By combining Sandia’s expertise with that of participating universities and commercial firms, the institute will provide a hands-on learning experience in which students can contribute to important research directly.
New facility prepares tomorrow’s scientists to obtain macro results from very small things.

A cutting-edge U.S. government research center has launched a program to educate the next generation of scientists and experts in the field of nanotechnology. The Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, New Mexico, in partnership with several universities and private sector firms, has combined resources and expertise to found an institution that will enable students to participate in and contribute to advanced research projects.

The idea for the National Institute for Nano-Engineering (NINE) originated during a 2006 Sandia summit that brought together experts from industry, government and academia to discuss methods to boost U.S. technological competitiveness. A major influence behind the event was a series of reports on declining national competitiveness and innovation in advanced science and technology in a global marketplace. The most notable of these reports was “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” from the U.S. National Academies, explains Justine Johannes, a senior manager in Sandia’s Minerals Synthesis and Processing Department.

The consensus from the meeting was that government, industry and academic laboratories must create strong partnerships to foster the next generation of innovators. An important part of the discussion focused on attracting potential scientists, providing interesting and challenging problems for them to solve and creating a professional calling for them. The meeting also addressed launching a federal government effort focused on developing and accelerating innovation to maintain national competitiveness.

NINE Program Manager Regan Stinnett notes that many scientists working in the field now were inspired by NASA’s moon missions in the 1960s and early 1970s. “We don’t have anything that’s comparable today to catch the imagination of kids across the country. But we believe the area of nanotechnology has the potential to be exciting across a wide spectrum of applications,” he says.

Stinnett believes that by communicating this scientific excitement and providing opportunities for students to be involved in a hands-on manner, the program can engage the best and brightest students in significant research areas. He notes that nanotechnology-based solutions may not only help solve future economic issues, but they also may help answer some major issues facing the nation.

As envisioned by the summit, NINE is a place where scientific research can be focused to meet important national challenges. Johannes describes NINE as a prototype discovery and innovation institute. “We see NINE as an example of the types of discovery institutes that we hope the DOE [Department of Energy] would set up to help bring DOE facilities and people together to help the American competitiveness challenge,” she says.

Stinnett notes that many organizations around the world are launching similar multidisciplinary research programs. However, he says that NINE has a major advantage because the DOE has invested a great deal of money into its laboratories. These resources allow students to access materials and multidisciplinary teams that are difficult for many universities to coordinate and operate. The institute provides students with hands-on experience that will prepare them for careers in industry, academia or government. Stinnett adds that the center allows students to become directly involved in important research projects without the need to artificially create work for them. These are projects that are important in themselves, he notes.

NINE currently has several goals, the first being to reach students and excite them about nanotechnology. Another objective is to conduct research with student participation to create the next generation of innovations in the field. “It’s about education as well as the discoveries that will come out of the research,” explains Johannes.

By providing both opportunities and a breadth of learning, students can access supplementary materials not normally available in traditional educational environments. For example, participants can learn about the technological and social implications of scientific advances. The courses also allow students to understand business concepts and to share technical vocabularies with other disciplines. “An engineer might not have the same vocabulary as a biologist, a physicist or a chemist, but by working together and with a little bit of help, that [dialogue] can begin to happen,” Stinnett maintains.

The program has two educational segments. The first is a multidisciplinary team of researchers from university, industry and other government laboratories. The second is a curriculum-based educational component led by the universities that injects innovation into the course work and provides research and career development activities not found in traditional academics.

NINE provides its students with access to a variety of resources unavailable at many universities, such as Sandia’s Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies.
The institute does not have its own facility. It is designed on a hub and spoke model, with the hub at Sandia and the partner organizations contributing their facilities. Johannes predicts that as the institute becomes more established, a dedicated brick and mortar facility will become desirable. But in its early stages, NINE will leverage the available facilities at Sandia. She notes that the institute conducted its first summer courses this year.

NINE also can draw on Sandia’s many nano- and microengineering facilities, says Stinnett. He adds that the laboratory just opened its Microsystems and Engineering Sciences Application facility as well as the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2005). “What we have in terms of existing facilities is already hard to match anywhere, though we are planning the possibility of expanding NINE,” he says. 

The institute is currently funding several research programs with Sandia internal investment money. These projects fall into three categories: nanoelectronics and information processing, nanomanufacturing and nanoengineering for energy applications. Johannes notes that there are several projects under each of these categories and that these efforts involve Sandia personnel, students, university professors and industry participants.

One project is developing a graded index refraction material that allows scientists to make more energy-efficient light emitting diodes. Stinnett notes that this work is contributing to the National Lighting Initiative and is part of a nanotechnology-inspired capability that could decrease energy use. Another NINE project is converting carbon dioxide into hydrogen-based fuel. The goal of the research programs is to involve students in projects to meet major challenges and to use their creative thinking to solve these issues. “We’re trying to give students big projects and big problems to solve—things that will have a major impact, that they’d love to be a part of and to which they can bring innovation,” Stinnett explains.

Another long-term goal of the institute is to provide students with professional expertise and help them to develop networks of peers. “Most university students have major connections with only their faculty adviser and maybe one or two others in their department,” Stinnett says. “We’re not taking that away, but when they come to Sandia, they’ll have multiple mentors who will work with them, and they’ll be working with faculty and graduate students from other universities, so their networks will be much broader when they are training and after they are finished,” he says.

NINE is open to graduate and undergraduate students, and both can participate in the summer program and technical projects. Johannes notes that the mix of graduates and undergraduates differs from program to program, but the goal is to have both levels of students participating in all of the projects.

Johannes hopes that in the near future NINE will compete to be an Energy Department Discovery Science and Engineering Innovation Institute. She adds that this would stand it up officially as a discovery institute, a position that would allow NINE the funds to create other opportunities.

Stinnett explains that NINE is currently in a near-prototype phase in which it is learning how to manage undergraduate and graduate students and to provide the right balance of time for them to spend with their mentors and projects. “We’re learning a lot from that [experience], and we hope to bring a lot to a Discovery Science and Engineering Innovation Institute that will expand well beyond what we can do with just internal money. We’d love to be able to serve students in much larger numbers and also have an outreach to the nanotechnology community that goes beyond the students that we can have on-site,” he shares.

NINE’s research is interconnected with participating university laboratories. Johannes notes that it is important to have a working relationship with participating university professors as well as students. Stinnett adds that while students form the glue that holds the effort together, faculty and their universities are the long-term participants. “We found that university partners are excited by the opportunities that are there for their students and for their professors to be part of something like this,” he says.

University involvement is key to NINE. Stinnett explains that it is very difficult to move from traditional vertically structured, discipline-based education to multidisciplinary projects that may require expertise in areas ranging from physics to biology and electronics. One challenge is to structure programs to allow individuals with varying skill sets to work with each other. Universities are useful in solving interdisciplinary issues because they understand the problems, and they can help NINE resolve these issues, he says.

NINE has a core administrative staff supporting its operations, but participating universities will provide much of the faculty expertise. Stinnett shares that NINE is still in its early stages and is being funded with $7.5 million of Sandia’s money. He adds that as the program expands, its infrastructure will grow, but he emphasizes that the point is to use the partners to minimize the need for a large administrative infrastructure. The institute was organized in January 2007 and formally launched in late August.

The institute is currently establishing its structure and determining criteria for membership. Stinnett believes that this infrastructure will be mostly in place by the end of this year. He also hopes that Sandia’s partners will have worked out a proposal for the Discovery Science and Engineering Innovation Institutes. NINE also is preparing to accept students into the program over the summer, and it is working to create programs that will provide both technical experience and a means to leverage students’ educations so they will be broad-minded and better researchers. This academic groundwork will be laid during the summer.

Web Resources
Sandia National Laboratories:
U.S. Department of Energy: