PSU to Build New Research Center for Nanomaterials and Biomaterials

In the single largest investment in the school’s 150-year history, Penn State University is in the midst of planning for a new state-of-the-art research building complex that will feature a multidisciplinary approach to nano and biomaterial sciences.

With a total investment of $190 million ($40 million from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania), Penn State will construct a new 350,000-square-foot Materials/Life Science research facility at its University Park campus. With laboratory space to accommodate more than 125 faculty and staff in cross-disciplinary research, the new building will facilitate collaborations with Penn State’s Hershey School of Medicine and long-time industrial research partners such as healthcare and materials giants Johnson & Johnson and Bayer Materials.

This major investment in nanoscale science and engineering falls under the leadership of Penn State’s Materials Research Institute (MRI), one of Penn State’s premier institutes designed to facilitate research across disciplines, and an international leader in materials research and engineering at the nano and microscale.

“MRI’s investment in nano is a logical outgrowth of the university’s core strengths in materials research,” Dr. Carlo Pantano, distinguished professor of materials science and director of MRI, told Nano World News. “Most of the exciting new developments in nanosciences stem from what we are already doing in materials, and to some degree in life sciences. So, we look at our investment in nanosciences as a strong bid to protect our lead in materials research.” MRI’s nanoscience investment will broaden the interdisciplinary activity among researchers and faculty across the whole campus, as well as with the user community and industry partners, Pantano said.

The materials and life sciences buildings will provide a locus for collaboration in the emerging field of bio-nanomaterials, the man-made materials and small machines, many of them based on biological processes, used for biosensing, diagnosis, and repair of the body.

Penn State is no newcomer to nanotechnology. The university’s Center for Nanoscale Science was established as an NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Center to carry out interdisciplinary research and educational outreach in the areas of Molecular Nanofabrication, Biomolecular Motors, and Collective Phenomena in Restricted Geometries. Penn State’s Center for Nanotechnology Education and Utilization (CNEU), is a national model for hands-on nanotechnology education for both undergraduates and industry. And the Penn State NanoFacilities Network (part of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network) provides nanofabrication and characterization capabilities for students and faculty, research universities, and small and large businesses.

Behind the Numbers – Penn State’s MRI Nano Commitments

At present, Penn State’s MRI nano-focused investments will result in:

  • Lab space and equipment for the more than 125 Penn State faculty in the life sciences and materials sciences
  • A 350,000-square-foot state-of-the-art Materials/Life Sciences Complex
  • Cooperative research opportunities with Neural Engineering Science and the Penn State Hershey Medical Center (including neural surgery and research into diagnosis and treatment of brain trauma)
  • Expanded corporate research partnerships. (Currently, Penn State is the nation’s 2nd leading recipient of industrial research funding.).

Thanks to Penn State’s ability to blend its on-campus nanoscience facilities with commercial partnerships, nano researcher Dr. Darrell Velegol, associate professor of chemical engineering, is especially excited about the prospects for applying nanoscience discoveries to real problems. “Materials science is a very strong basis on which to build all sorts of partnerships with industry. In many ways, even today’s life sciences work has its foundations in the basics of new materials and nano-formulations,” he said.

Dr. Velegol cited the following research areas he expected would be among MRI’s early nanoscience projects:

Nanowires – An area of expertise at Penn State, and likely to form the basis of a number of key innovations for biosensors and electronics;

Fuel cells – Penn State currently has a major energy research program, and bringing nanoscience research to that group could speed multi-disciplined energy research across many sciences;

Nanobiology and Bio-nanomaterials – Areas with immense promise, including new diagnostic techniques as well as new materials and designs for small machines and man-made materials for biosensing, diagnosis, and repair of the body. Other bio-nano devices could also include electrically-conductive artificial muscles or artificial neurons.

Nanoparticles/Nano-formulations – To form the basis for a new generation of materials and coatings for smarter intelligent materials.

MRI’s Early Success with Nano-Enabled Smart Fibers

Speaking of nano-enabled intelligent devices, Penn State researchers are already at work refining discoveries that could one day lead to a new generation of super-intelligent and inexpensive optical fibers. These “smart” fibers stuffed with semiconducting material could be used to enable a variety of advanced consumer and industrial items, such as FAX machines, video players and new security devices connected directly to the Internet.

A Penn State research group, led by Dr. John Badding, associate professor of chemistry, along with a research group at the University of Southampton, UK, is responsible for unlocking the exciting results that come from applying nano-techniques to optical fibers.

Today’s optical fibers carry most of the world’s voice and data traffic for cable TV, internet and even for secure communications, by using laser light beams to amplify signals. But these optical fibers are passive, relying on expensive semiconductor devices to relay or amplify the signal.

Badding’s group is conducting experiments to add intelligence to optical fibers by using nanoscale chemical vapor deposition (CVD) to coat the inside of a glass fiber with thin-layered semiconductors. By modifying CVD techniques long-used in the silicon chip business, Badding and colleagues were able to fill regular glass fibers with materials that could produce a uniform semiconductor the length of the fiber strand.

“Today, there is a tremendous need for fiber devices that can generate up to 40 different colors of light, which can then be sent down the fibers as independent communication channels for complex signals,” Badding told NWN.

The materials breakthrough that Badding and company achieved was in developing techniques for creating micro and nano structures inside long and extremely narrow fibers. “We can make holes that are 10 nm across, which is essentially creating a wire,” Badding said. The combination of optical and electrical capabilities provides the platform for development of new optoelectronic devices.


Badding’s experience could serve as a template for how MRI’s overall research focus will proceed, Dr. Pantano told NWN.

“Nanoscience in many ways is the future of materials research, and we intend to continue to be at the forefront,” Pantano said. “But in the 21rst century, the challenges of research are different, so the questions we ask must be different. MRI will not just be about pure research and discovery.&rd

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