The Electrical and Communications Systems (ECS) Division of NSF's Engineering Directorate has invested significant resources in nanotechnology for some time. This interest has primarily been driven by the potential advances in microelectronic and photonics technologies brought about by using components and subsystems of reduced dimensions, which result in concomitant performance advantages in terms of reduced power consumption, increased speed of operation, and so on. In some cases, the development of completely new subcategories of the forementioned technologies with new performance capabilities have resulted, such as resonant tunneling diodes and quantum cascade lasers.
For the most part, however, the drive toward the nanometer dimension has been derived from the "brute force, making big things small" engineering of ultrasmall structures, through the use of advanced epitaxial growth and processing techniques. The ECS Division currently invests approximately $10 million in research and education activities that focus on the engineering of such structures; this includes a $2.2 million annual investment in the National Nanofabrication Users Network described above.
ECS would like to pursue an alternative approach to nanoscale engineering that is most relevant to the electrical and electronic engineering community; this would be a bottom-up approach to engineering these structures, and in some cases, might mirror the "self-assembly" models of biological systems. In order to succeed, this activity would require an interdisciplinary research and education endeavor.