M.C. Roco
Directorate for Engineering and
NSF Coordinator of the Nanotechnology Group


The National Science Foundation (NSF) organization and its core strategies in developing specific research programs will be outlined in the context of a continuously changing scientific and technological environment. The focus is on academic institutions covering all areas of science and technology. The overall system may be described as a closed feedback loop, starting with long-term planning, generation of programs, portfolio of projects, their evaluation, and feedback to planning. Changes in scientific, educational, economic, and international conditions, and their effects will be discussed. The presentation will include a discussion of mechanisms for international collaboration.

Several research priorities will be discussed, including the role of nanotechnology.

Summary of U.S. Government Agencies' Activities in Nanotechnology (NT)

Twelve U.S. agencies have provided input to this summary, including the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Army Research Office (ARO), the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Department of Commerce (DOC), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Energy (DOE), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). The overall level of support for research is in the precompetitive phase. Approximately 25% of the total is spent on applied research as part of development projects. Development funds have not been explicitly reported in this survey. NSF has the largest single-agency research expenditure (about $65 million /year).

Current interest in NT is broadly based, and there are several common themes among all agencies. A main goal has been the synthesis, processing, properties, and characterization of nanostructured materials, including high rate production of nanoparticles for potential industrial use, thermal spray processing, and chemistry-based techniques for the deposition of multilayered nanostructured coatings, the processing of nanoscale powders into bulk structures and coatings, superlattices, and uckminsterfullerene research. Nanofabrication with particular focus on the electronic industry is another major theme. This includes the development of technologies seeking improved speed, density power, and functionality beyond that achieved by simply scaling transistors, operation at room temperature, the use of quantum well electronic devices, and computational nanotechnology addressing physics and chemistry related issues. Research on nanoscale materials for energy applications has had a focus on synthesis and processing of materials with controlled structures, surface passivation, and interface properties. The initially targeted energy-related applications are catalysis, optoelectronics, and soft magnets. Neural communication and chip technologies have been investigated for biochemical applications and sensor development. Metrology activities for the thermal and mechanical properties, the magnetism, and the thermodynamics of nanostructures have been initiated. Nanoprobes to study nanometer material structures and devices with nanometer length and picosecond time resolution have been developed.

Future research will continue the miniaturization efforts by using established methods and principles to do big things small, and it is expected that most of the relevant industrial application in the short term will come from this area. In longer term, the building-up approach from molecules and nanoparticles/nanotubes/ nanolayers is the most promising from the scientific, expectation of innovations, and industrial relevance points of view. Future research opportunities include the development of an understanding of the physics and chemistry of the new properties and phenomena found at the nanometer scale, the engineering of functional nanostructures from molecules and fine particles, the establishment of measuring tools with improved sensitivity, time, and spatial resolution, and advances in theory and simulation techniques for systems in the range 1 to 100 nm. Among the targeted functional nanostructures are optoelectronic devices, multifunctional (smart, adaptive) coatings and three-dimensional engineered structures, semiconductor nanostructures for multispectral detector arrays, structures generated by chemistry and bio-self-assembly techniques, biomimetics, quantum control, and atom manipulation. Nanocomponents are envisaged for microdevices for sensing, information processing, and telemedicine. There will be a continued interest in low power nanoelectronics, miniaturization of spacecraft systems, carbon nanotube technology for producing nanogears and hydrogen storage, improved molecular beam epitaxy, and silicon-germanium-carbon- based devices in order to enable scaled silicon nanoelectronics. The potential of single-electron devices and molecular electronics will be explored.

NSF Overview

Previous NSF activities have originated in the disciplinary programs throughout the Foundation, as well as being the result of several interdisciplinary initiatives. Relevant initiatives are the following:

A broad spectrum of individual or small-group projects in the areas of materials, chemistry, physics, electrical and chemical engineering, biosciences and bioengineering, computer science, and manufacturing has received support in the area of NT by competing in the disciplinary programs of the Directorates for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS), for Engineering (ENG), for Biosciences (BIO), and for Computer Infrastructure Science and Engineering (CISE). Several engineering research centers (for instance the Engineering Research Center on Microelectronics at the University of Illinois) and materials research centers (for instance the Material Research Science and Engineering Center at Brown University) have plans targeted to nanosciences and nanotechnology. More detailed information concerning previous NSF nanotechnology activities can be found in the outlines of the NSF areas of support given in Research and Development Status and Trends in Nanoparticles, Nanostructured Materials, and Nanodevices in the United States, WTEC, May 8-9, 1997 (http://itri.loyola.edu/nano/US.Review/).

The 1997 level of NSF investment in nanotechnology research was approximately $65 million, of which about $41 million was spent in MPS and $20 million in ENG, with relatively lower expenditures in BIO and CISE.

High-risk/high-gain research is sought in all aspects of nanosciences and nanotechnology. The "bottom-up" approach (building up from molecular and particle level to nanostructured materials, nanocomponents, and nanodevices) will be preferred. In order to succeed, this activity would require an interdisciplinary research and education endeavor. It is expected that NSF's Directorate for Education and Human Resources (HER) will be involved. Main fundamental research opportunities may be grouped as follows: advanced generation and processing techniques to generate nanostructures with controlled properties, including chemistry and bio-self-assembly techniques, and artificially-structured materials; advanced methods to simulate structure growth dynamics and assembly processes at mesoscale, their stability, dynamic properties, and chaotic behavior; methodologies to characterize the nanoscale materials at an atomic and molecular scale with increased sensitivity and spatial resolution, including instrumentation and nano-sensors based on novel concepts and principles; tools and concepts of quantum control and atom manipulation, including laser and atomic trapping techniques and optically generated wave guides; theoretical and computational studies of the way in which biological structures encode and utilize information; new knowledge of computing systems architecture; and novel health-care technologies.

Editor's note: The following material is taken from viewgraphs that were used as part of M.C. Roco's presentation

NSF Research Programs and Support for Nanotechnology

M.C. Roco
National Science Foundation
August 21, 1997

Fig. 1.1. The research process at NSF.

Fig. 1.2. NSF's core strategies.

NSF Modes of Support

Changing Environment for Research and Education

Relevant Programs in the World

Previous NSF Activities in Nanoparticles/Nanostructures

Mechanisms for Collaboration

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian