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Why the Next Big Thing Won't Be Big

September 1, 2004

The next big thing in science will come from very small things.

Things that measure a billionth of a meter or less.

That is the tiny, yet infinite, realm of nanotechnology, a hybrid of chemistry and engineering that uses chemical and mechanical tools to manipulate atoms and molecules. Scientists are using it to build things from the bottom up. The way vegetables build themselves with atoms from dirt, water and air.

Someday, nanorobots may perform delicate surgeries a thousand times more precisely than scalpels, or be ingested to attack viruses. They may also alter appearance and slow or reverse the aging process. Tiny machines building food atom by atom might even wipe out world famine, scientists predict.

This "science of the very tiny" is the basis of an extraordinary collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University, the federal government and industry. This and other collaborations are happening all over campus and becoming models for fast-tracking research into the marketplace.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon's Data Storage Systems Center (DSSC) are working closely with industry and the federal government to exploit nanotechnology in order to create a revolution, not only in information storage, but also in a wide variety of fields.

"Think about what happens when you download and store software today," said Ed Schlesinger, head of the DSSC, which is part of the university's engineering college. "You're rearranging the material structure on your disk by changing the physical properties of clumps of molecules. If the guts of a computer were no larger than a few of those clumps, you could rearrange molecules on the recording medium to essentially build chips. This is the strength of information storage technology in the nanotech arena, since, in information storage, we rely on the ability to address and manipulate individual nanoscale objects.

"Someday soon, we could essentially download hardware from the Internet just like we download software today," Schlesinger said.

New systems could be developed that physically reproduce some hardware downloads. One concept, part of the efforts in probe recording within the DSSC, is to make a read/write head from a cluster of ultra sharp points to nudge atoms and molecules this way or that. Other efforts include the manipulation of light at nanoscale dimensions, or the manipulation of the magnetic or physical state of various materials at these same dimensions.

At the same time, the data storage industry is pushing for the increased use of nanotechnology to develop systems that can store one terabit per square inch or more. That kind of information storage capacity would make it possible to store a small black-and-white image of every man, woman and child on earth on a CD-sized disk.

With more than $4 million in government and corporate funding, the DSSC continues to pioneer theory and research that will lead to the next generation of information storage and nanotechnology.

Intellectual talent, a track record of practical innovation and a powerful collaborative culture have helped to make Carnegie Mellon one of the top choices for industry and government. Researchers at the DSSC are proving to these partners that turning to academia is an efficient and effective way to solve increasingly complex problems.

The DSSC works closely with companies from around the world such as STMicroelectronics, Sharp, Seagate and others. At Sony Corporation, Senior Vice President Katsuaki Tsurushima says innovative research in new data storage is what industry expects from the DSSC.

Seagate established its research lab in Pittsburgh in large part because of the proximity to Carnegie Mellon's pool of outstanding talent.

In addition to the DSSC, Carnegie Mellon also maintains a state-of-the-art Nanofabrication Facility which is becoming "home-sweet-home" for a handful of technology startups. These groups are using tiny computer chips that can improve the sound in cell phones or gauge damage done to a disk drive when dropped by a user.

A handful of local and regional companies make use of Carnegie Mellon's $10-million, 4,000-square-foot clean room that includes a full complement of equipment essential to firms developing a wide range of novel micro devices."If a tech startup is deciding where to set up shop, an important part of the decision is the availability of processing facilities," said Charles Buenzli, vice president and chief operating officer of Bridge Semiconductors. This early stage micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) company develops integrated circuits for a variety of industry sectors.

Collaboration between government, industry and academia has helped spur a myriad of advances in technology now used every day, according to Richard Russell, associate director for technology, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

At a May 2003 technology conference, Russell used Intel Research Pittsburgh a lab established by Intel Corp. near Carnegie Mellon, as an example of corporate involvement in government-funded research.

Intel Research Pittsburgh, which focuses on software development for data storage, is one of four labs Intel Corp. has developed close to major universities to pursue open collaborative research projects to accelerate development of new computing and communication technologies."Intel Research Pittsburgh is already making a big impact on a number of areas of research since its founding just two years ago, including personal computing mobility in the Internet Suspend/Resume Project, wide-area sensing in the IrisNet project and interactive search of complex data in the Diamond project," said David Tennenhouse, Intel's vice president and director of research.

This combination of talent, collaboration and freedom has made for an exceptionally dynamic and productive environment of shared information and cross-fertilization.

Research collaborations like these allow industry and government partners to become part of the intellectual community here, expanding the pool of world-class talent and providing valuable insights into industry and social needs.

When the Collaborative Innovation Center (Co-Lab) opens on campus, this will only be enhanced. In this new facility, researchers from various disciplines will be working shoulder-to-shoulder, so their ability to respond to industry and government needs-and to build "technology dream teams" to address them—will be maximized.

Carnegie Mellon's time-tested success story of interdisciplinary—and collaborative—research positions the university as a leader in developing answers to the challenging social and scientific issues of today—and tomorrow.

Source: Carnegie Mellon Today



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