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October 21, 2002

Florida rides nanotech wave

From: Miami Herald, FL
Oct. 21, 2002

Florida's top research universities and a handful of young companies are out to capitalize on nanotechnology.

The University of Florida, along with Florida International University and the University of Miami, are leading the pack. UF has partnerships with the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida.

At UF alone, about $10 million is directly devoted to nano-related research. FIU in Miami is working with $620,000 this year, part of about $2.5 million in multi-year grants the university has received that are dedicated to nano-research.

The study of materials and processes at the atomic level cuts across many disciplines as scientists see possibilities for tiny structures where bigger elements may not be feasible.

For instance, Charles Martin, a UF chemistry professor, is out to build a one cubic millimeter-sized battery to power cell phones, laptops or micro-eletromechanical machines. The tiny battery would be 1,000 times smaller than the one cubic centimeter-sized hearing aid batteries that are the smallest on the market today.

Working as part of a team with three other institutions and funded by a $5-million grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the UF researchers have created nano-anodes and nano-cathodes on the scale of one billionth of a meter. These nano-electrodes are as much as 100 times more powerful than traditional ones.

At Florida State University, one effort brings together the biology and physics departments and the Center for Materials Research and Technology to discover ways to combine nano-sized machines with biological matter. One project aims to create a very small motor that runs on protein.

Dr. Surendra K. Saxena, who heads FIU's Center for the Study of Matter at Extreme Conditions, spends his days torturing nano-particles of various common materials with extreme conditions. His goal: to see how the properties of these materials change under extreme pressure or temperature.

Saxena explains that under extreme pressure, many common materials change their form and acquire unusual properties. A well-known change, for example, is the graphite-to-diamonds transformation.

Other materials are showing ''diamond-like'' properties when subjected to high pressures.

Saxena is leading a project to see what nano-materials could be used in the synthesis of nano-sized diamonds, which could have industrial potential because of their hardness.

At UF's National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Particle Science and Technology, which is 9 years old, the work is focused on understanding the properties of nano-particles, says Brij Moudgil, the director.

''We need to learn to control and monitor them,'' says Moudgil.

The center's 25 faculty members are drawn from 10 departments at the university and five colleges. Funding comes from the federal government via the National Science Foundation, the state, and 45 corporate partners.

There is also ongoing nanotech research involving the UF School of Medicine.

UF and FIU will jointly apply for a portion of the $35 million the Florida legislature appropriated this spring as part of Gov. Bush's technology initiative. The goal is to attract top-notch scientists and researchers to Florida, and hopefully keep the fruits of their labor in the state as their work is commercialized.

Moudgil says UF and FIU are assembling a proposal for a nano-bioscience and engineering center, which would be based in Gainesville. The proposal, which is due Dec. 1, will likely ask for $10 million to $15 million.

Some of the work from the lab is already making its way to the marketplace.

Nanotherapeutics, based in Alachua, was spun out of UF's lab in 1999. The company's technology focuses on making medications more effective and more patient friendly, says James Talton, one of the company's founders.

There are at least four other young companies in Florida working in the bio-nanotech area.

If it's any indication of how popular nanotech research is these days, Dean Vish Prasad was swamped with some 100 applications -- more than a few from tenured scientists at major research universities -- when he advertised to fill two newly created positions in FIU's College of Engineering that will focus entirely on nano-related work.

Prasad found four candidates he really wants to hire. Now, the hard part will be persuading university officials to fundtwo more positions.

Copyright © 2002 Miami Herald