With $350M Research Center, MIT Bets Big On Nanotechnology

Download Audio

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is betting big on small. The school recently unveiled plans for a new $350 million research center, called MIT.nano.

When finished in 2018, MIT.nano will provide state-of-the-art facilities for thousands of scientists studying nanotechnology.

And by manipulating subatomic particles, researchers believe they can transform the world.

Nanotechnology At Work

Forget microscopic, that's way too big. Shrink down to the world of atoms, where scientists measure things in nanometers — a billionth of a meter.

To get your head around something this small, MIT professor Vladimir Bulovic offers an example: "A typical house is about 100,000 times wider than a strand of hair. Alright. Nanometer is 100,000 times smaller than a strand of hair."

"The world is built on nanoscale and the 21st century will be defined by it."

MIT professor Vladimir Bulovic

We're talking tiny.

And while Bulovic has made a career in electrical engineering pondering the properties of the most minute particles of matter, no one has ever accused him of thinking small.

"If I can control matter at the scale of about 0.1, 0.2 nanometers, I am controlling atoms, and from there on, I can build the entire world as we know it," he says.

Or even build a better world, one that exploits the weird, subatomic realm of quantum mechanics. When scientists manipulate matter at the nanolevel, the laws of quantum mechanics kick in and strange things happen. Particles can be in two places at the same time, or spin in opposite directions simultaneously. Nanocarbon conducts electricity. Iron ignites. Aluminum explodes.

Bulovic admits nano can be mind-bending.

"The nanoscale is pretty awesome," he says. "What we're discovering over the past two decades of examining the nanoscale is that some materials, when made into nanoscale materials, can give you performance that exceeds what we have previously known."

In his office, Bulovic offers a vision of the nano future.

He clicks on a huge video screen. It uses colloidal quantum dots. By precisely controlling the size of these nanocrystals, engineers can tune the flow of energy and light that's emitted, creating exquisite colors and lifelike images.

"We can see the details of a butterfly," he shows me. It seems better than nature.

He laughs and says, "It's true to nature."

This is nanotechnology at work. He continues: "This is nanotechnology that doesn't compromise the efficiency, yet gives you the high color quality you would desire to see."

This flat-screen TV was the first product to use quantum dots, but you can already find nanotech in hundreds of consumer products: lightweight, super-strong body armor, baseball bats and tennis rackets, smudge-proof cosmetics and shampoos that straighten curly hair. There are coatings to make planes and turbine blades more fuel efficient, and fabrics that are wrinkle- and stain-free.

Bulovic says it's just the start.

"My pants do not absorb light yet, they just don't stain anymore, right?" he says. "So why don't they absorb light? I mean, I'm walking around with this huge shirt of mine. I might as well capture some energy from the daylight environment and run my iPhone."

Or power entire buildings by turning windows into see-through solar cells, invisible to the eye but electric generating. It's not nano sci-fi, it's real.

"And I can look through it and my window can now be photoactive," Bulovic says. "And if I can go ahead and reduce the use of electricity for lighting, that would be a humongous win for the world. Again by engineering the nanoscale."

Actually, nano is nothing new under the sun. The word comes from ancient Greek. Centuries ago, the Greeks learned that tossing cooking oil on water created a kind of nano sheen that calmed the seas, enabling their boats to sail faster.

Federal, State Assistance

In 2009, President Obama toured MIT's Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Lab with professor Vladimir Bulovic. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
In 2009, President Obama toured MIT's Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Lab with professor Vladimir Bulovic. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Now, fast forward to the 21st century, where nanotech is one of the few things enjoying bipartisan political support.

In 2000, President Clinton launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative. President George W. Bush continued funding the effort, and President Obama is a big booster. So far the federal government has pumped $21 billion into nano research.

In 2009, Obama toured Bulovic's lab at MIT, and touted nanotech's role in saving energy.

"More efficient lighting systems that rely on nanotechnology, innovative engineering that will make it possible for offshore wind power plants to deliver electricity even when the air is still," Obama said.

In Massachusetts, federal dollars fund nano programs at MIT, as well as UMass Lowell, UMass Amherst, Boston University, Northeastern and Harvard.

Rick Reibstein, a manager with the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, provides technical assistance to nanotech companies in the state.

"Could be a very big deal," he says. "We could have more efficient energy, more efficient batteries, better solar technology. We could have what we call self-cleaning surfaces designed to shed dirt, so you don't have to use toxic chemicals to clean them. We could have better medicines that are targeted towards the disorders we're suffering. The potential for benefits from nanotechnology is quite great."

So far, nanotech has flown largely under the regulatory radar. There are no specific federal or state rules dealing with potential — and so far uncertain — dangers from nano-size particles to people and the environment.

Reibstein says it's better to be cautious amid scientific uncertainty, but believes more carrot, less regulatory stick, will foster the safe growth of the fledgling industry.

"The state of Massachusetts — the office where I work, which again is an office designed to assist companies to do the right thing; it's not a regulatory office — has put out guidance on how you should think about these issues," he says.

Proponents say nanotech could be the next big thing, perhaps launching a new Industrial Revolution in fields we don't even have names for.

2,000 Researchers On MIT Campus

An aerial image shows MIT.nano's planned integration into the campus. (Courtesy of Wilson Architects)
An aerial image shows MIT.nano's planned integration into the campus. (Courtesy of Wilson Architects)

At MIT, it's full speed ahead to the future. It's loud on this day, as construction crews prepare the site for the new 200,000-square-foot MIT.nano. But when it's finished in 2018, the lab — in the heart of MIT, shielded by other buildings — will be the quietest place on campus.

Bulovic, the MIT professor, says the labs have to be as silent and still as outer space, so scientists can manipulate matter at the subatomic level.

"The vacuum actually inside our chambers is better than the vacuum between Earth and Moon," he says. "If you're standing between Earth and Moon you'll be hit by more particles than you would if you're sitting inside our chamber. It's about comparable to the vacuum between Earth and Mars."

Bulovic is leading the construction effort and has big plans for his new nano lab. Twenty years ago, 75 people worked in nanotech at MIT. The new building will accommodate 2,000 researchers. It will be the most occupied, most used space on campus.

"Look at the last decade of recent professors who joined MIT and who got tenure at MIT," he says, "more than half of them are working on nanoscale. That's the way the future is. The world is built on nanoscale and the 21st century will be defined by it."

And if Bulovic is right, we, in turn, will be defined, in big and small ways, by nanoscale technology.

- Here's an MIT video about the MIT.nano facility:

This segment aired on August 5, 2014.

Headshot of Bruce Gellerman

Bruce Gellerman Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman was a journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.



More from WBUR

Listen Live