Nano Quest

Since 2004, the Center for Nanoscience & Nanobiotechnology (CNN) has served as the virtual address for all nanoscale research at Boston University. Led by Director Bennett Goldberg, professor of physics and electrical, computer, and biomedical engineering; Associate Director M. Selim Ünlü, professor of electrical engineering; and Associate Director Joyce Wong, associate professor of biomedical engineering, the center brings experts from disparate disciplines together in research projects, seminars, conferences, and other programs to enhance interdisciplinary nanoscale research.

By integrating all campus-wide nanoscale research within one organization, CNN has boosted the rate of discovery and development of powerful new technologies. Drawing on faculty members in eight departments and four schools and colleges, the center’s primary strengths are in nanophotonics and nanobioscience.

Nanophotonics is the study of how light can be used at very short length scales, such as within the home or office, where electrons now serve as the primary media of information transfer. One application that could emerge from this study is a new generation of higher-speed, lower-power personal computers. “We’d like to figure out how we can use photons in the space where we’re using electrons now,” says Goldberg. “If you could use light to communicate along well-defined metal structures that could direct light on very small length scales efficiently, you could replace electrons as a communications medium at many different points.” Such technology would radically increase processing speed and reduce thermal limitations in computer chips and other electronic devices.

Director Bennett Goldberg, right, and Associate Director M. Selim Ünlü of the Center for Nanoscience & Nanobiotechnology.

Director Bennett Goldberg, right, and Associate Director M. Selim Ünlü of the Center for Nanoscience & Nanobiotechnology.

Nanobioscience, the study of biological processes with nanostructures sized small enough to probe biological molecules and proteins and their interactions, is poised to advance our understanding of subcellular processes, biomolecular function, and human physiology. “This is a space that’s more application-driven, partly because the pull from human health care is strong,” Goldberg observes, noting close ties between CNN and the Medical Campus. “Among other things, we look forward to the prospect of nanoscale drug delivery and imaging techniques for more accurate clinical diagnostics.”

After four years of operation, the center reports hundreds of journal publications and invited presentations on topics ranging from high-precision inspection of integrated circuits to dynamic monitoring of biological interactions at the molecular level, seven new nanoscience and nanotechnology courses covering advanced topics in nanophotonics and nanobioscience, a dramatic increase in nanoscale researchers on campus, and an industrial liaison program.

Today CNN members and graduate students are collaborating on more than 12 funded research projects in labs scattered across campus. While the projects have diverse aims, such as high-throughput DNA sequencing and more accurate detection of antibodies in patients’ blood, they draw upon a common set of techniques and equipment. “We now hope the center will grow to the point where we’ll have a central laboratory with high-end nanofabrication and nanocharacterization (nanoscale investigation of a material) tools,” says Goldberg.

Meanwhile, ongoing CNN projects promise to vastly improve our ability to observe and manipulate nanostructures and nanoscale phenomena in pursuit of advances in health care, electronics, and other technology-driven fields.