National Science Foundation tests out the assembly line of the future

There’s no shortage of ideas about how to use nanotechnology, but one of the major hurdles is how to manufacture some of the new products on a large scale. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst chemical engineer Jim Watkins and his team are working to make nanotechnology more practical for industrial-scale manufacturing.

One of the projects they’re working on at the NSF Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing (CHM) is a roll-to-roll process for nanotechnology that is similar to what is used in traditional manufacturing. They’re also designing a process to manufacture printable coatings that improve the way solar panels absorb and direct light. They’re even investigating the use of self-assembling nanoscale products that could have applications for many industries.

“New nanotechnologies can’t impact the U.S. economy until practical methods are available for producing products, using them in high volumes, at low cost. CHM is researching the fundamental scientific and engineering barriers that impede such commercialization, and innovating new technologies to surmount those barriers,” notes Bruce Kramer, senior advisor in the NSF Engineering Directorate’s Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation (CMMI), which funded the research.

“The NSF Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing is developing platform technologies for the economical manufacture of next generation devices and systems for applications in computing, electronics, energy conversion, resource conservation and human health,” explains Khershed Cooper, a CMMI program director.

“The center creates fabrication tools that are enabling versatile and high-rate continuous processes for the manufacture of nanostructures that are systematically integrated into higher order structures using bottom-up and top-down techniques,” Cooper says. “For example, CHM is designing and building continuous, roll-to-roll nanofabrication systems that can print, in high-volume, 3-D nanostructures and multi-layer nanodevices at sub-100 nanometer resolution, and in the process, realize hybrid electronic-optical-mechanical nanosystems.”

The research was supported by NSF award #1025020, Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSEC): Center for Hierarchical Manufacturing.

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