The National Science Foundation & the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology at Georgia Tech

Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology sophomore students visit the the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology at Georgia Tech's cleanroom.

The National Science Foundation has supported specialized nanotechnology resources and user facilities for over forty years, beginning in 1977 with the National Nanofabrication Facility at Cornell University, followed in 1994 by the formation of the National Nanotechnology Users Network. Created by an act of Congress in 2000, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was tasked with coordinating the nanoscale research activity of more than 20 federal agencies as well as creating open access to equipment and specialized expertise for nanoscience and engineering.

As a result of this cooperative plan the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN, 2004-2015) was established by the NSF to provide access to specialized nanotechnology resources to all researchers, including smaller academic institutions, as well as to small and medium size commercial entities, who could not afford the expense of in-house nanotechnology infrastructure. Additionally, nanotechnology education and outreach activities, as well as components for the social and policy implications of nanoscience advancements, were added to the program’s goals.

The Georgia Institute of Technology was a foundational member of the 14-site NNIN user facility network. Georgia Tech Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor James Meindl served as director of the Georgia Tech site from 2004 until his retirement in 2013. This decade included the opening of Georgia Tech’s Marcus Nanotechnology Building in 2009, which still houses one of the largest academic cleanrooms in the country as well as a state-of-the-art materials characterization facility. During this same period, the NNIN Education and Outreach Office was located at the Georgia Institute of Technology and led by Dr. Nancy Healy.

The National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI), established in 2015, is the latest version of this NSF nanotechnology resource and builds on the legacy of the NNIN, which enabled major discoveries, innovations, and contributions to education and commerce for more than 10 years. With initial funding of $81 million over five years to support 16 sites and a coordinating office, NNCI affords cross-disciplinary research support in electronics, materials, biomedicine, energy, geosciences, environmental sciences, consumer products, and more. The geographical positions of the sites and partner institutions are strategically located in 15 states and involve 27 universities, giving access to as many users as possible across the U.S. The toolsets of sites were designed to accommodate explorations that span the continuum from materials and processes through devices and systems. Micro/nano fabrication, conducted in cleanroom environments, as well as extensive characterization capabilities, provide resources for both top-down and bottom-up approaches to nanoscale science and engineering.

To enhance the impact of NNCI sites as a national network of user facilities and aid access to these assets via a unified entry point to the user community \, the NSF selected Georgia Tech to be the NNCI Coordinating Office in 2016. The NNCI Coordinating Office also uses the expertise of the network to develop and disseminate best practices for national-level education and outreach programs and activities in societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology.

On August 24, 2020, NSF announced that it will invest a further $84 million over five years in a renewal of the NNCI Program. In March 2021, the NSF again selected Georgia Tech to lead the Coordinating Office with participation from Arizona State University and Virginia Tech. Georgia Tech will receive $3.5 million over five years for this coordinating role.

Plans for this next phase of the NNCI include establishing Research Communities focused on specific research topics which are designed to connect researchers with the NNCI resources available, as well as determine what challenges and opportunities exist in these areas for adding capabilities to NNCI facilities. These Research Community topics are: Transform Quantum, Understanding the Rules of Life, Nano-Enabled Internet-of-Things, Nanotechnology Convergence, and Nano Earth Systems.

Additionally, the successful integration of nanotechnology into consumer technologies rests on the ability for industry to adopt novel processes into existing manufacturing platforms or easily scale-up a new technique. To help technologies bridge the “valley of death” to commercialization, a new Associate Director for Innovation and Entrepreneurship position has been established to implement programs across the network that will assist users in this area and thus improve the economic impact of NNCI and connect users to the existing translational ecosystem.

With continued support from the Coordinating Office at Georgia Tech, the NNCI will train a globally competitive nanotechnology workforce and provide efficient access to resources for research, innovation, and commercialization of nanotechnology. The network will also help to inform and educate future scientists and the public on fundamentals and advances in nanoscience and engineering and their societal and ethical implications.

  • Christa M. Ernst
Leading Voices in Nanotechnology – Small + Shared = Super Science

For a perspective from IEN Leadership on the importance of the Shared Infrastructure Model for innovation in academia see the article co-written by IEN Executive Director Prof. Oliver Brand & IEN Senior Assistant Director for Nanotechnology Dr. David Gottfried here: The National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI): A Model for Shared Resources