ITHACA, N.Y. - A nanotechnology company in suburban Chicago can rearrange carbon atoms in methane gas to create another form of carbon: diamond. Turning its patented synthetic material into path-breaking devices _ a cell-phone chip or even a vision-restoring retinal implant _ hinges on finding room at an affordable research lab. "We have our own equipment for making the diamond," said Neil Kane, president of Advanced Diamond Technologies Inc. "But all of the subsequent steps require access to a clean room, to tens of millions of dollars of equipment that no small company could ever afford. Many big companies can't afford it either."
And so his Argonne National Laboratory spinoff, in pursuit of a commercial breakthrough, rented space for one of its chief researchers this year at Cornell University's Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility. Like a dozen other federally funded nanofabrication labs at campuses around the country, the Ivy League school's $250 million hub caters mainly to students, faculty and visiting scholars. For a fee, the network also opens its doors to businesses eager to make their mark in the vaunted new age of the minuscule. In a famous address in 1959, former Cornell professor Richard Feynman challenged fellow physicists to commence a full-scale exploration of the "staggeringly small world that is below." Almost 50 years later, manipulating matter at the atomic scale has revolutionized electronic circuitry, improved hundreds of everyday products from inkjet printers and stain-resistant khakis to sunscreens and water filter systems, and promised dramatic breakthroughs in medicine, energy and other industries. Even as billions of dollars are pumped into nanoscience, however, it remains an often staggeringly expensive arena for scientists of all stripes to explore. "It's the fixed costs that kill you," said Matt Miller, chief executive of Multispectral Imaging Inc. of Parsippany, N.J., which has two researchers working full-time at Cornell in central New York. The three-year-old startup, launched with key patents licensed from Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, is on the verge of creating its first nanoelectrical component: a focal-plane array for thermal imaging systems that would enhance detection of people trapped in burning buildings. "We are beneficiaries of a taxpayer investment that fills a social purpose," Miller said. "Now clearly we're motivated commercially, but this nanofab structure allows work to be done that would not otherwise have been done at all." Over the last year, nearly 700 companies ranging from solo ventures to corporate titans paid anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $100,000 to lean on a lab consortium anchored by Cornell and Stanford that boasts top-of-the-line nanoengineering tools, techniques and staffs. The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, stretching around the continent from Harvard, Howard and Penn State to the University of New Mexico and Georgia Institute of Technology, is open to all-comers willing to pay "full cost recovery" as they scramble to turn experiments into promising prototypes. But steep discounts kick in when a company clocks $55,000 in fees within a calendar year. Businesses don't surrender any proprietary rights, crucial when working in stealth mode. In return, the schools draw $14 million a year from the National Science Foundation and collect millions more in fees that partially subsidize academic users or help pay for lab technicians and ever more sophisticated equipment. In the 12 months through September, 683 of the network's 4,437 users were businesses. Of those, 70 percent were small firms, mostly startups employing fewer than a dozen people. And the overall number of users is growing 10 percent a year, said the NSF's senior engineering adviser, Lawrence Goldberg. The government, which spends $1.4 billion on nanotechnology each year, recently built five nanoscience centers at its national research labs. "They're open to the outside community but require collaboration with Department of Energy researchers and have more restrictions than NSF would require," Goldberg said. While each university in the network gravitates toward faculty specialties _ medicine, geosciences, solid-state electronics _ the 30-year-old Cornell center is among the most comprehensively equipped. "To support activities in optics, physics, biology, mechanics and electronics, you really need a very wide array of tools, and we have well over 150," said Mike Skvarla, the lab's user program manager. "Some are very sophisticated and expensive and do very precise things. Others are run-of-the-mill microscopes and spectrometers but still crucial if you need one particular measurement at a particular time." And expertise is every bit as crucial as equipment. "It's one thing to have a really fancy machine but you also need to know how to use it and how to push it to its limits. That is what we're good at here," said the lab's director, George Malliaras.
Even Fortune 500 firms "that can afford to have their own research infrastructure are not comfortable enough to handle some new nanomaterials" and rely on academia to help them out, echoed Yoshio Nishi, a former chief scientist at Texas Instruments who heads the Stanford Nanotechnology Facility. Although the operating scale is infinitesimal _ a nanometer is roughly 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair _ the economic possibilities are colossal. By 2014, nanotechnology might generate $2.6 trillion of manufacturing output and employ 2 million people, Lux Research Inc. of New York estimates. Just as information technology transformed the world of commerce, "nanotechnology is the next toolkit that businesses will need to draw from to compete effectively," said Sean Murdock of NanoBusiness Alliance, a trade association. "If you look at solar energy, medical diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, we're just starting to see the more transformational things coming on the horizon.
Many biotech or semiconductor-related technologies have emanated from university campuses as a result of our nation's investment in basic scientific research, and that's very much the case here too." At its plant in Romeoville, Ill., Advanced Diamond can chemically convert 50 cents' worth of natural gas into $500 worth of smooth diamond consisting of grains measuring about 5 nanometers, or about 20 carbon atoms, in diameter. The exceptionally hard, heat-resistant, low-friction substance is coated on industrial machines to make them last longer and reduce energy costs. But Advanced Diamond's high-value expertise is its ability to deposit diamond uniformly on silicon wafers "in such a way that we have high control over it," Kane said. Using photolithography and other techniques common in the semiconductor industry, the company is now setting its sights over the next few years on fabricating money-spinning micro-machines _ which is where Cornell's lab becomes vital. "We estimate Argonne spent well over $10 million developing our underlying technology before we came along and licensed a dozen patents," said Kane, who ran an entrepreneurial center at the national lab before he and two scientists there founded their 10-employee company in 2004. By the same token, "if there were no user facilities, we would have no business," Kane said. During a dozen visits to Cornell this year, materials scientist Nicolaie Moldovan developed Advanced Diamond's first product _ an atomic force microscope probe with a pyramid-shaped, 10-nanometer-wide tip far more durable than standard silicon probes. The NaDiaProbe, expected to go on sale early next year, is viewed as a pivotal first step in the company's quest to build a generation of tiny but powerful microelectromechanical systems _ medical implants, biochemical sensors, smart chips _ entirely out of diamond