The three largest universities in the Triangle were recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to better facilitate collaboration between nanotechnology students, manufacturers and researchers.

The grant, which totals more than $5.5 million and lasts five years, supported the launch of the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network in September of this year—an undertaking that builds upon previous NSF-funded nanotechnology initiatives between Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The RTNN is managed by Nan Jokerst, J.A. Jones professor of electrical and computer engineering at Duke; James Cahoon, assistant professor of chemistry at UNC; and lead director Jacob Jones, professor of materials science and engineering at NCSU. The grant provides funding for the enhancement of university nanotechnology research centers across the area and also helps nanotechnology facilities introduce their research to students across the country.

“We’re going to leverage this network in many ways,” Jones said. “Our collaboration opens up a much larger impact to users across the Triangle and across the nation.”

Jokerst explained that the current interests of the RTNN lie in synthesizing materials, developing innovative structures and characterizing new nanoparticles.

Nanoparticles, which can be as small as a billionth of a meter in size, possess a wide variety of applications. For example, they can be used as vehicles for drug delivery—nanomedicine is a huge focus for research in the Triangle, Jokerst said. Investigators at the NCSU College of Textiles are also developing ways to improve fabrics through nanocoatings, she added.

The network will work with other Duke facilities such as the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility—started by Jokerst in 2002 to develop metamaterials, which are artificially made materials used to manipulate energy like infrared light and radar. SMIF hopes to serve as a platform for commercial innovation, Jokerst noted.

“[SMIF] is a facility where people can try out their ideas and essentially make [new nanoparticle] structures,” she said. “If [their ideas work], they can transfer them into industry. We serve as a prototyping facility for industries in the Triangle area and beyond.”

In addition to funding the many nanotechnology centers throughout the Research Triangle, Jokerst explained that one of RTNN’s ultimate goals will be to train future scientists. For example, SMIF invites Duke classes—such as Introduction to Microelectronic Devices and Circuits—to work on nanotechnology projects.

Jokerst explained that RTNN will invite middle schools and high schools to send biological and geological samples for further analysis at the network’s characterization facilities, hopefully giving students a better understanding of the state of nanotechnology research. Students will also be able to view real-time images from a scanning electron microscope through Skype video conferencing.

“The people running these experiments are graduate students,” Jokerst said. “So these high school students and middle school students can look at the student running the equipment and say ‘Hey, I could do that too! I could be that student!’ This is really a [unique] way to encourage students at middle school and high school age to understand what’s available to them.”