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Tiny Technologies: Why Small Is BIG at MIT

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti, Vol. 1, No. 4, July 2004

You may have heard that the size of a nanometer is a minute fraction of the diameter of a human hair (approximately one fifty-thousandth the thickness of a hair). Another way to describe the almost incomprehensibly tiny scale of nanotechnology is to imagine the length your fingernails grow in one second. That's a nanometer.

Small is very BIG these days. Tiny Technologies -- what we in the MIT School of Engineering call the wide range of technologies measuring from the nano- to the micro-scale -- have captured the world's imagination with unprecedented promise to significantly improve our future well-being. The National Science Foundation has predicted the national market for nanotech products will reach $1 trillion in a dozen years.

Just think of a future . . .

  • in which artificial muscles aid those with debilitating conditions,
  • where nano-robots manipulate molecules on the surfaces of materials to give them different properties,
  • where light beams bend at 90-degree angles to facilitate a broad range of communications,
  • where self-assembling polymers revolutionize the manufacturing process,
  • where microturbines or microreactors in shoes generate additional energy to lighten strenuous work,
  • where the pervasiveness of computation using ultra-small devices changes daily life in unimagined ways.

These examples provide only a glimpse into the range of possibilities of the ultra-small envisioned by some of our brightest minds. Taking a look at the extraordinary research that our faculty, researchers, and students are conducting, it appears that the future, a tiny future, is only a small step away.

Our major initiative in Tiny Technologies is now one of the broadest and most comprehensive areas of study underway in the School of Engineering. Through advanced interdisciplinary research, we seek to create new knowledge and novel technologies on the nano- and micro-scale.

Why We Can Take Big Steps in Tiny Technologies – Reason #1
Depth and Breadth

The scope of our coverage is almost unparalleled. Our Tiny Technologies initiative involves the expertise of between nearly 100 faculty and researchers from across the School of Engineering – Aeronautics and Astronautics, Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Materials Science and Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering – and draws, as well, upon fundamental discoveries being made in all the constituent areas – physics, chemistry, and biology – by MIT's School of Science. Several major laboratories, programs and centers across the Institute are involved. Listed in order of longest involvement with research in Tiny Technologies to the most recent entry in this area, these include: the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, the Research Laboratory of Electronics, the Microsystems Technology Laboratories, the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the Microphotonics Center, and the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems.

We are drawing upon the Institute's unique mix of interdisciplinary resources and core strengths enabled by our scale. Our efforts seek not only to bring together a broad range of our internal expertise, but also to foster collaboration with our colleagues in industry and the academy beyond MIT.

Why We Can Take Big Steps – Reason #2:
Established Foundation of Past Efforts

At MIT, we have been at the forefront of micro- and nano-technology for more than 20 years, literally helping to define these fields. Thus, our initiative builds on a remarkable foundation.

Why We Can Take Big Steps – Reason #3:
Core Areas of Interest to Talented Faculty

Our faculty envision enormous opportunities and challenges related to this multi-faceted research endeavor, including those in several targeted focus technological areas -- computation and communication, photonics, electronics, and spintronics, micro- and nano-mechanical systems, and nano-scale materials, energy, and micro-scale biology. That's quite an impressive array of applications.

What Else Is in Store?

Our talented faculty, students, and research staff are innovating in exciting, new ways. (By way of illustration, view our "Nanotechnology" video segment) Their cutting-edge investigations include:

the creation of a prototype for a "pharmacy on a chip," an implantable, computer chip-sized device that can harbor 1,000 or more separate drug doses,

  • turbines the size of a shirt button,
  • waterproofing and molecular switches that will enhance the multi-functional capabilities of soldiers' body suits, and eventually everyday clothing as well,
  • nanoscale energy transport,
  • nanomanufacturing,
  • piezoelectric MEMS for tunable optical devices,
  • MEMS radio frequency switches,
  • piezoelectric micro power generation and energy harvesting,
  • long-range ordered nano structures,
  • carbon nanotube assembly, and
  • nanopelleting.

In the years ahead, we are likely to benefit from tiny blood-borne drug-delivery systems, including devices that target individual diseased cells; ultra-small systems in agriculture that would sharply boost productivity by, for example, fixing growth-enhancing nitrogen directly from the air and super-efficient transport systems that could make space travel as accessible as airline travel is today.

In our Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL), an upgraded and expanded facility that includes equipment for rapid prototyping and micro-/nano- fabrication of novel materials and structures will support new and exciting research directions in biology and nanotechnology that will evolve from teaming with the Computational Systems Biology Initiative (CSBi), the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), and the Nanomanufacturing Initiative in the Mechanical Engineering department.

The MTL also seeks to establish a larger centralized multi-disciplinary Tiny Technologies fabrication facility in the coming years. This facility will ensure that MIT remains at the forefront of Tiny Technologies research. Building on this vision, MTL plans to work with leading companies to create what will be the most complete research infrastructure for Tiny Technologies of any university in the world. Because of such efforts at MIT, we expect to conduct research on a multitude of exciting applications in Tiny Technologies. Indeed, this infrastructure will enable multidisciplinary research and thus broader and deeper impact than a single signature application emerging from narrowly defined efforts.

Seeing the Big Picture in Tiny Technologies

As you can see, our size, breadth of resources, long-established track record, and a strong tradition of interdisciplinary and cross-cutting collaborative efforts allows the School of Engineering to tackle issues with both a depth and a range of approaches that set us apart. Enabling these innovations will require new science, new technologies, and new processes. For example, imagine manipulating, fabricating, or even just seeing material at a nanoscale. That's quite a challenge. But addressing challenges is what the School of Engineering is all about.