Electrical Engineering Professor David Dickensheets

Electrical engineering professor David Dickensheets, left, and student Erwin Dunbar work with silicon wafers in a facility at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Kelly Gorham/Montana State University

BOZEMAN — Big things can start with little things — even tiny ones.

Montana State University has received a $3 million grant to create a new nanotechnology center, the Montana Nanotechnology Facility, or MONT.

Nanotechnology is the study and application of extremely small things. The National Science Foundation, which awarded the $3 million, five-year grant, said nanotechnology research leads to innovations that benefit the economy and society in general.

Nanotechnology hasn't played a big role yet in agriculture, but that could change, experts say. Potential applications in production ag include reducing applications of plant protection products, minimizing nutrient losses in fertilization and increasing yields through better nutrient management. Food security, food safety, nutrition and environmental protection hold promise, too.

David Dickensheets, MSU professor of electrical and computer engineering and principal scientist for the MONT grant, said the university is well positioned to take advantage of it.

MSU, as a land-grant university, has a "three-stooled mission of education, research and outreach, and this (the new technology center) really fits into that," he said.

The university already has five high-tech labs: the Montana Microfabrication Facility, the Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials, the Imaging and Chemical Analysis Laboratory, the Center for Biofilm Engineering and the Mass Spectroscopy Facility.

One example of the nanotechnology work at MSU is the research into the structures of viruses found in Yellowstone's famous springs among single-celled organisms that thrive in extreme temperatures and acidic or alkaline conditions.

The grant will help researchers from outside MSU use equipment at the labs, enhance the education of MSU undergraduate and graduate students and create educational opportunities for public school teachers, Dickensheets says.

The university also will use some of the money to add new equipment, allowing researchers to better study materials down to four nanometers in size, or the width of 40 to 50 atoms.

MSU has been active in nanotechnology since the 1990s, a field in which considerable advancements — including in microelectronics — have been made already, Dickensheets says.

"Every chip in your cellphone and the computer on your desktop benefits," he says.

Researchers in chemistry, physics and engineering and biological sciences make use of nanotechnology tools at MSU, and ag scientists sometimes utilize the university's imaging equipment, too, Dickensheets says.

The MONT site effort includes co-principal investigators Recep Avci, research professor of physics; David Mogk, professor of Earth sciences; and Phil Stewart, professor of chemical and biological engineering.

National effort

The Montana State University grant, in which Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., will partner, is part of an $81 million national effort. The money is going to 27 universities in 15 states, according to the National Science Foundation.

The 16 sites, including the one at MSU, will be part of the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure, or NNCI, which provides business, academia and government access to nanotechnology resources.

"NSF's long-standing investments in nanotechnology infrastructure have helped the research community to make great progress by making research facilities available," Pramod Khargonekar, NSF assistant director for engineering, said in a written statement. "NNCI will serve as a nationwide backbone for nanoscale research, which will lead to continuing innovations and economic and societal benefits."

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Managing editor at The Billings Gazette.