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October 19, 2015

UChicago and Northwestern receive joint 5 million dollar nanotechnology grant

UChicago and Northwestern received a joint $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) last month to advance collaborative nanotechnology research efforts in the Chicagoland area. The NSF distributed a total of $81 million in grants to 16 research sites across the country as part of a new initiative called the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI).

“The NNCI is meant to make nanotechnology-related facilities more available to academic and non-academic institutions that do not have such infrastructure available to them locally,” said Andrew Cleland, the co-principal investigator on the NSF proposal.

Cleland is also the faculty director of the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility (PNF), a brand new 10,000-square-foot facility located in the basement of the new Eckhardt Research Center on Ellis Avenue. “The facility is focused on nanofabrication, and provides the most advanced tools for researchers in all fields,” he said. Researchers in the PNF aren’t limited to electronic circuits but can also create optical, fluidic and mechanical devices at the nanoscale.

According to Matthew Tirrell, director of UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering, the NSF’s grant will defray the costs of operating the PNF, making it more affordable for all users to conduct original research. The bulk of the funds will go toward supporting the salaries of staff members who maintain the research equipment that was donated in 2014 by the Pritzker Foundation. “We’ve set up a fabrication facility very much like one that you’d find in a company that makes computer chips or microchips or communication chips,” said Tirrell.

Tirrell began writing a joint proposal with Northwestern professor Vinayak Dravid in order to avoid competing head-to-head with Northwestern’s already-established engineering program. “Together, we developed a strong proposal that covered the entire Chicago region,” he said. 

The proposal, titled “Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental Resource (SHyNE),” describes how the two universities plan to increase accessibility to their nanofabrication facilities for researchers from around the world. “Our facilities offer some unique capabilities especially for patterning ‘soft’ materials as well as hybrid combinations of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ materials, a combination not available at very many other locations, which was one reason we were selected to be funded,” said Cleland.

Cleland said that the grant will also deepen existing relationships between UChicago and Northwestern, adding to the quantity and range of research topics pursued at the two campuses. “This will also expand the number of people that students and faculty at UChicago and Northwestern interact with, enabling more communication and potentially collaborations that otherwise might not be formed.”

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