Scientists Seek Practical Results From Nanotechnology

April 2005
By Henry S. Kenyon

The Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) is overseen by the Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories and the U.S. Department of Energy. Its goal is to provide a multidisciplinary research environment for integrating nanoscience discoveries into practical applications such as microelectronics.

Interdisciplinary facility provides access to advanced equipment, expertise.

A new research center is helping scientists to better understand the realm of the very small and to integrate discoveries into existing technologies. Devoted to nonclassified work, the facility is administered by two U.S. national science laboratories and geared toward providing researchers with open access to specialized tools and expertise. Although the main building is still under construction, a number of programs already are underway through special funding.

The goal of the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT), Albuquerque, New Mexico, is to study, develop and integrate nanostructures into larger applications. CINT is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) facility that is jointly operated by the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories. According to Dr. Neal D. Shinn, CINT user program manager, the center is a place where scientists can leverage expertise and knowledge from both laboratories to make new advances in nanoscience.

The CINT concept began in the mid-1990s as a part of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Shinn notes that the facility is one of five DOE Office of Science Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs) under construction throughout the United States. These research and development buildings feature specialized equipment that is often too expensive for a single organization or group of institutions to afford. The research centers are located either near or in national research laboratories. CINT is unique because it is managed by two laboratories, Shinn explains.

The reason for placing the research centers at national laboratories was to take advantage of the laboratories’ resources and equipment. “The DOE recognized that nanoscience research and development is highly interdisciplinary and involves a lot of expense. The national laboratories have considerable expertise, and this is one way to make this accessible to a larger community,” he says.

Of the five NSRCs, a facility at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, will be ready for occupancy later this year followed by CINT and two others in 2006. But all of the centers are now conducting limited “jump-start” operations. “We have a modest fraction of our operating budget available now, and we’re bringing users to our national laboratories to work in existing facilities while the buildings are being built,” Shinn says. 

CINT’s primary research focus is nanoscience integration. “We feel that many of the benefits of new discoveries at the nanoscale will be realized when they are actually embedded in a microscale or larger platform,” Shinn states. Integration has the advantage of coupling new discoveries in areas such as physics and chemistry with real-world applications. “It would be nice to have a beaker full of quantum dots, but you’re not going to do much with them in that context. What you want to do is to use a quantum dot as a new electronic or photonic device. So it’s going to have to be on a platform and maybe part of a chip in a communications system. But getting that quantum dot out of the beaker and onto the chip takes a lot of work.”

Working with both Sandia and Los Alamos provides CINT with unique capabilities. Shinn explains that Sandia is strong in engineering disciplines such as systems engineering, while Los Alamos’ expertise is in materials research and biology. “The combination of our laboratories is an integration in itself. By bringing our staff members into this one center, we can offer a real suite of expertise and capabilities to the user community to tackle a lot of these integration challenges,” he says.

Dual access to both national laboratories allows scientists to tap into a variety of high performance research programs. For example, Sandia’s Microsystems Engineering Science Applications (MESA) facility is a separately funded effort encompassing approximately $480 million worth of facilities and instrumentation designed for studying and building microsystems. CINT is establishing partnerships with MESA researchers to help develop new methods to apply nanoelectronic or nano-optical communications structures and architectures that can be integrated into intelligent microsystems devices.

By leveraging the skill and expertise of other research groups, the center will develop and demonstrate new technology integration methods. Shinn notes that one goal is to produce prototype devices in the future that can demonstrate practical applications for nanotechnology. Researchers will have access to a variety of national user facilities such as the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. Other DOE laboratories include Sandia’s Compound Semiconductor Research Laboratory and the Microelectronics Development Laboratory. The Los Alamos Bioscience Division will provide expertise in areas such as biochemistry, biomaterials, biophysics, chemical synthesis, self-assembly, imaging and microscopy.

A number of CINT programs already are underway, with a total of 65 user projects approved at the end of 2004. The center’s jump-start program has attracted more than 188 proposals from 93 institutions from across the United States and abroad. This number reflects 165 requests from 71 universities, 13 proposals from industry, 9 from government laboratories and 13 from foreign institutions. The programs fall into several categories: nano-bio-micro interfaces, nanophotonics and nanoelectronics, complex functional nanomaterials, nanomechanics, and theory and simulation.

Scientists working to integrate nanotechnology into existing systems face an immediate challenge with scale—transferring energy from the nanoscale to larger structures. For example, considerable interest exists in developing sensors for chemical and biological agents. But even a device that detects and recognizes a single molecule must be able to report the event, Shinn says. “You still have to amplify that. Even if you had perfect single molecule detection, you would have to take a molecular scale event and communicate that somehow to the world. There is the whole issue of how to transfer energy—that might be an electron hopping from one molecule to another or a photon that’s absorbed. How do you amplify that up?” 

Molecular self-assembly is another area of research. Shinn explains that many current fabrication methods are top-down and not really effective for creating nanoscale structures. Taking cues from nature, researchers in self-assembly techniques seek to reverse this process by having the structures manufacture themselves out of base molecules. CINT is supporting a number of projects exploring ways to apply this technique to top-down assembly methods such as optical lithography. “You could build something complicated within a lithographically patterned structure. We are not going to self-assemble an automobile—we’re not even going to self-assemble a microelectronic device. What we are likely to do is self-assemble some functional part within that [microelectronic] architecture so that you will have a hierarchical structure. We are learning the rules about directing materials, growth and processes,” he says.

CINT programs also are investigating how to apply combinations of biological and inorganic techniques to artificial structures. This may be as simple as coating a surface with a substance that allows it to change its properties, Shinn says. For example, a surface may be able to switch between hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties when triggered by light or temperature.

Researchers are examining the use of nanoscale tools to move objects at the molecular level. In contrast to micromachines, which simply replicate mechanical devices, these nanosystems would not use gears or levers. Shinn notes that mechanisms within human cells move molecules with proteins. The CINT programs are seeking ways to replicate this process in a simple way. Although this particular research may take years to develop useful applications, he notes that it may ultimately allow microsystems to perform functions that are impossible or impractical with gears or levers.

CINT will operate two “gateway” facilities on the campuses of the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories. These buildings will allow scientists to have greater access to the specialized research facilities and experts at both laboratories. The gateways also permit researchers to move between laboratories as their work requires.
While CINT and the other nanoscience research centers are designed as nonclassified research facilities, they also possess mechanisms for conducting proprietary research. “Frankly, we are not set up to do classified work in the CINT facilities themselves. However, being situated at Sandia and Los Alamos, one could do classified extensions of this work in nearby facilities,” Shinn says.

For example, if an initial concept at CINT shows promising results, the next step may be to move it toward a classified program. This decision would follow consultations with the appropriate experts at both national laboratories to determine whether the work could find a home in their secure facilities.

The CINT core facility is located just outside Sandia’s Albuquerque campus. Los Alamos is located 100 miles away. To maintain its dual administrative nature, CINT consists of a core facility with one gateway located at each national laboratory.

The core facility is a 96,000-square-foot structure featuring three large wings. Designed as a working laboratory, each wing serves a specialized function. One wing is a clean room called the integration laboratory. Shinn explains that this facility was developed to combine materials that may not be acceptable in a conventional microelectronics clean room. The second wing is a synthesis facility where researchers can make materials using different production techniques, and the third wing is a characterization center where new materials can be analyzed and studied.

The gateways are physical buildings located on the campuses of the two national laboratories. Users will be able to access all three buildings, depending on their needs. The gateways allow researchers to access particular experts or equipment unique to each of the campuses. These gateways also serve as a base for further research in the national laboratories. For example, a scientist may need to have access to Sandia’s microsystems complex. “A visiting scientist could start his or her work in the core facility, move into one of the gateways if they need some specialized tool that happens to be in the gateway, or use the gateway as a launch pad to access more specialized tools in either laboratory,” he offers.

The core CINT facility is under construction as is the Los Alamos gateway. The Sandia gateway already is functioning. The gateways allow scientists to avoid problems posed by time and distance. “It’s a way for outsiders to have a home in the core facility, but also to have homes inside each laboratory. So when they’re visiting, they are not just wandering the halls with their suitcase and samples in hand trying to get something done. They really have a place to be, both in Sandia and Los Alamos,” he says.


Web Resources
Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies: and
National Nanotechnology Coordination Office: