Monday, November 26, 2012

Five Questions With: Robert Hurt

Robert Hurt is an engineering professor at Brown University and the director of the university’s Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation, which just celebrated its five-year anniversary.
Hurt talked to Providence Business News about the institute’s growth during that period, its research, and the future of the nanoscience industry in the Ocean State.

PBN: As director of the Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation at Brown, how has this program grown in the five years since its inception?

HURT: Our Institute, IMNI, was founded in 2007 to promote and coordinate research and education in the molecular and nanosciences across the Brown campus.
Over the last five years we have worked hard to develop cross-departmental and cross-institutional research teams that allow our scientist to address the big societal problems of the day – those that are too complex for traditional single-investigator science.
We have also recruited and hired several new young faculty members, developed a professional staff for proposal development and program management, increased the number and breadth of our federal grant portfolio in this area, acquired new major pieces of research equipment, and launched the Rhode Island Consortium for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (RIN2) together with partners from URI.

PBN: Of all the research being conducted at IMNI, what’s your favorite and why?

HURT: It’s a hard choice - with 60 members and three thrust areas, we have a lot of exciting research to talk about. Certainly Professor Shouheng Sun’s research on nanoparticle synthesis is internationally recognized, and his highly engineered nanoparticles are promising for applications in sensing, data storage, fuel cell electrodes, biomedicine, and as catalysts for energy transformation processes.
Another highlight is our new federally-sponsored Center for Chemical Innovation, led by Professor Tayhas Palmore. The grant focuses on conversion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into commodity chemicals, in the hope of developing more sustainable routes to chemical manufacturing.
I am also very excited by our industry partnerships with General Motors and Medtronic, both focused on advanced materials.

PBN: IMNI recently earned permission from the university to open a NanoTools facility on campus, what does that entail?

HURT: One of IMNI’s most important functions has been to build and operate central facilities that offer state-of-the-art equipment to users both on and off campus. Much of the equipment needed for modern R&D in nanotechnology and materials science is too expensive to be acquired and run by individual investigators or laboratories. IMNI currently operates central facilities for micro-fabrication and electron microscopy, the latter facility being one of the finest university facilities anywhere.
A while back we recognized the need for a new facility that focuses on material characterization. Having fabricated a new material or device, one needs to know a lot about its structure and properties before it can be effectively pushed into new technologies. Our new NanoTools facility, which is on the planning board, will house a suite of state-of-the-art instruments for materials characterization, including spectroscopies to study the chemical bonding within a material, and atomic force microscopes to study the atomic-scale and nanoscale features on material surfaces.

PBN: The science of nanotechnology has really burst onto the scene in the last 20 years, how do you think the field will continue to grow, both at IMNI and nationally?

HURT: Nanotechnology has grown steadily over the last decade both in terms of federal funding and in terms of IP generation and product commercialization. This growth is projected to continue. At the same time, nanotechnology has matured and evolved as a field, and become less of a stand-alone activity and more integrated into technology development across a range of sectors.
I believe that most nanotechnology today is not being practiced at self-identified nanotech startups, but at large firms in many different sectors of manufacturing. Much of the R&D you might associate with energy technology, for example, whether in batteries, solar cells, or fuel cells, is really nanotechnology applied to the materials and components used in those devices. That is where much of the real innovation is occurring.
Ten years ago, nanotechnology was exploratory science taking place in university laboratory settings, and sometimes described in very imaginative and futuristic terms. Now it is evolving into a set of practical mainstream tools and materials used in technology development for energy, health care, military, and manufacturing. I believe we will see continued growth, but that growth might not always be in the form of an easily definable nanotech business sector.

PBN: You’ve said that you think nanotechnology can help Brown (and the state’s other higher education facilities) boost Rhode Island’s economy. How?

HURT: IMNI’s growth has created faculty and staff jobs, as mentioned above. I think our biggest opportunity for the future is still in the area of federal funding, where IMNI and RIN2 can bring together a critical mass of researchers to compete for large grants.
This basic research employs people in the state, and also attracts some of the top young talent to pursue higher degrees and maybe remain in the state or region after graduation. I also hope we can grow our industrial partner program and focus it more on state and regional companies.
Finally, with the establishment of the new School of Engineering, which is a major player in IMNI, and with Brown’s development and growth in the Jewelry District, there is hope we can develop a critical mass of high-technology activity in Providence that could help the knowledge economy here take shape.
By Emily Greenhalgh