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Moore Foundation Gives $25.4 million to Caltech for Nanoscale Systems Initiative

PASADENA, Calif.--The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded a $25.4 million grant to the California Institute of Technology to establish the Nanoscale Systems Initiative (NSI). The grant will support one of the scientific and technological community's promising research avenues--the creation of extremely tiny devices to augment and in some cases displace the state-of-the-art electronic systems of today.

According to Michael Roukes, professor of physics, applied physics, and bioengineering at Caltech and founding director of the initiative, the new funding significantly augments the work at Caltech that is already at the forefront of the nanoscience revolution. Earlier this year, the Kavli Nanoscience Institute was founded at Caltech with a $7.5 million grant.

"If there's one theme that's unique about Caltech and nanoscience, it's that our small size allows us to make the most of our strengths and to work on our two strong themes, which are nanobiotechnology and nanophotonics," Roukes says, explaining that nanobiotechnology merges nanodevice engineering with the molecular and cellular machinery of living systems, and nanophotonics employs new materials technology and nanofabrication processes to develop novel devices such as optically active waveguides and microlasers.

Nanoscience is a term that refers to fundamental research to uncover the underlying physical principles that govern the function of devices measuring less than a billionth of a meter. Caltech has had an ongoing interest and presence in nanoscience and nanotechnology--or the engineering of such devices--and, in fact, one of the Institute's most renowned researchers is credited with the origin of the concept.

In 1959, Caltech physicist Richard Feynman gave a now-famous lecture titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," in which he mapped out possibilities for extremely small devices, consistent with the principles of quantum mechanics. Since that time, research at the Caltech campus and other institutions has led to discoveries that are, step by step, bringing about a realization of Feynman's early vision.

In January 2000, President Clinton visited the Caltech campus and announced his administration's launch of the "National Nanotechnology Initiative," which has since led to a huge upsurge of activity nationally. A number of major universities and research institutions have embarked upon their own "nano" initiatives.

Roukes says the new gift will allow Caltech to further its work in nanobiotechnology and nanophotonics, in particular, through various efforts to continue probing the nanoscale frontier and to continually look for opportunities to employ nanoscale devices as new tools for frontier research.

"Fundamental work on the science of nanoscale systems will probably largely continue to be the province of the individual researchers," he says.

But as time goes on, researchers will find ways to integrate nanodevices into systems that yield transformational tools for forefront research, particularly in the medical and life sciences. For such integration, achieving the economy of scale for nanofabrication that is possible only in the context of a centralized nanoscience institute is crucial.

As a researcher who, in the past, has primarily been involved in fundamental work, Roukes says he is now especially optimistic about the engineering possibilities that can transform basic nanoscience into real nanotechnology.

"If we can reproducibly create new nanoscale tools, even in modest production, we'll be far ahead of the curve."

One of the avenues various Caltech faculty will explore within the nanoscience initiative is the creation of new nanoscale technologies to aid the emerging field commonly referred to as systems biology. Actually a methodology, systems biology treats biological systems as if there is an underlying "circuit diagram" that can be exploited--perhaps through the signaling mechanisms of individual biological molecules, and also through specific gene expression as well as through the detection of proteins expressed by genes. In many cases, systems biology depends on advances in genomics, which in turn is based upon large-scale assays of biological activity at much smaller scales. Nanobiotechnology promises to provide new means for such studies, ultimately at the level of individual cells and molecules.

In addition to enabling innovative research, the NSI will also create new educational opportunities in nanoscale science and engineering to attract stellar graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

The Moore grant will be used for architectural modification and creation of new laboratories, professional and administrative staff, facilities operations and service contracts, state-of-the-art research equipment, and a networking/communication program to link Caltech researchers with their peers worldwide.

The gift is part of a $300 million commitment the foundation made to Caltech in 2001.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation seeks to develop outcome-based projects that will improve the quality of life for future generations. It organizes the majority of its grant-making around large-scale initiatives that concentrate on: environmental conservation, science, higher education, and the San Francisco Bay Area.


Written by Robert Tindol

Caltech Media Relations