Sunday, April 18, 2004

If it isn't materials, it's immaterial

Photo by Howard Lovy
NNI architect Mike Roco takes questions in Washington.

I'm still going through my notes from the recent National Nanotechnology Initiative conference in Washington, coming up with spinoff story ideas for Small Times correspondents to work on, and saving some material for my next magazine column (which is late, of course). Along the way, I rediscovered an enlightening conversation I had with Sandeep Shukla, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech.

I took Shukla aside during a question-and-answer session with NNI Architect Mike Roco, U.S. Secretary of Chemistry Rick Smalley and others. Shukla was among a handful of computer scientists and physicists who lined up behind the microphone to ask why the NNI is living in a purely material world. Nanotech is more than chemistry, they argued. Smalley told them that the NNI is the National NanoTECHNOLOGY Initiative, not nanoSCIENCE, so they need to focus on application rather than pure theory if they want NNI money. Otherwise, go knock on the doors of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) or NASA, or any other agency that funds pure science projects.

Here's part of my conversation with Shukla (I was told that while I conducted the interview, complaints continued regarding not only which types of projects were getting funded, but also about some universities getting preferential treatment. If any reader has some notes or thoughts from the part that I missed, please let me know.):

    Howard Lovy: It sounds to me like the physicists and computer geeks on one hand feel like they're on the outside, while the chemists and material scientists are defining the agenda.

    Sandeep Shukla: Yes

    Lovy: How did that happen?

    Shukla: It could be that some people have been using nanosprays in stuff for many, many years. So, I think the material people have been more aware of nanoparticles and how they can actually make materials better or more sustainable.

    Lovy: They're actual materials, whereas you deal more with ideas.

    Shukla: That's right. And secondly I think you have to have a champion, right? Smalley's a big champion for polymers and buckyfullerenes. See, for us, we don't have a champion. Sometimes, I wouldn't blame them. It seems like it may be justifiable. There was a mention today that American aeronautics is no longer the top. France sells more planes than Boeing does, so the question is, 'Can we get an advantage through the materials from which they are made?'

    But the only problem … is, 'How do you know the Japanese are not doing all this stuff?' … Let's say 10 years from now I have quantum computing devices. But at that time, if I also parallelly do the research – which is theoretical and model-based – if I have quantum effects at the device level, what would happen to my architecture? How do I have to change my computer architecture to do things?

    So, those are the things that we do and we think that that's not getting the right attention.

    … There are two aspects of computational nanoscience: One is people who model and simulate using supercomputers. I think that is also not very much supported by this program.

    Lovy: But that's not what you do, though.

    Shukla: Yes, that's not what I'm doing. I'm talking about when I build computers which are built on top of nanomaterial, then you'll have defects. Right now, you create a die. And then on the die, in one wafer you make like a thousand processors. So then they test each of them and then the ones which are defective are turned away. But when you have nanotechnology, on such a small scale, you will have defects in each of them. So, how are you going to throw them away? You cannot throw them away, right? So you have to build reliability assuming you will have defects. So, those are the kinds of things that are kind of futuristic.

    Lovy Do you need government funding? Or, like you say, if government doesn't do it, Intel will.

    Shukla: Yes, but Intel and private investors don't help the universities that much. You see, my question came up because, with the NNI funding when you apply from a university you have a restriction on the number of applications per university. So, what happens is that since materials seems to be on the forefront, last time I wrote an NNI proposal and then we did an internal preselection and all the material guys got selected.

    Lovy: Is that because that's what the government solicits?

    Shukla: No, the solicitation doesn't say, 'You can only do materials,' but I think the university-sponsored research office who selects them decided that materials are a sure thing because there are more possibilities for funding. People from research offices come to events like this. When they go back … they're going to say, 'Oh, at this conference I saw that everything was about materials, so I'm going to select the material ones because I want money."

    Lovy: I talked to a woman from NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), and she says the military is very interested in quantum computing, and they're funding it. So, I think what Dr. Smalley was saying is that the NNI is not the place for you to go. You should go to DARPA, you should go any of these other agencies, but the NNI is all about materials.

    Shukla: Well, they created the NNI, so they would know better what the NNI should do, right? … I agree with Smalley in one sense. When I look at scientists who are working on problems like energy depletion, I think they are doing much more profound work than what I am doing with zeros and ones, although what I do is needed for them to actually discover their things. So, computer science is not profound in that sense.

    Lovy: You should have more confidence in your work.

    Shukla: No, what I do, I do well. But what I'm saying is that what I do is not necessarily the most profound in human terms.

Update: Materials Science student DFMoore has some interesting additional comments about this interview, plus how the Georgia Tech characters characterize nanocharacterization.

Another Update: Freshly minted nano student Mason Guffey says my opening question captures "the preoccupation with material science among the NNI-funded axis of nanotech research," but asks: "So as a physical chemist, where the hell do I fit into all of this?" Read more here.

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