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UC Merced School of Engineering Participates in COINS Nanomechanical Research Center

March 29, 2005

MERCED — Researchers in nanotechnology, a field high on the list of hot topics in science and engineering, are establishing a niche for their work at the University of California, Merced. The UC Merced School of Engineering is a partner in a recently awarded $12 million National Science Foundation grant to establish the Center of Integrated Nanomechanical Systems (COINS) over the next five years. COINS research aims to develop machines that are versatile and efficient due to their ultra-small size - most can be seen only under an electron microscope.

“Nanomechanical research will be a leading employer of engineers in the future, and UC Merced is developing a strong focus in that field in order to meet the need for prepared workers. COINS will move that effort along,” said Dean Jeff Wright of the UC Merced School of Engineering. “In addition, we look forward to collaborating with researchers at other leading California institutions to create innovations in nanotechnology, benefiting the communities in which we live.”

The NSF is funding nanotechnology centers at prestigious universities around the United States with its Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center (NSEC) program. The University of California, Berkeley, leads the group of research institutions working together on COINS. UC Merced will participate in the center along with the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University. The cooperative effort will allow UC Merced faculty members and their students to use UC Berkeley fabrication labs for their research until such infrastructure can be put into place at UC Merced. Ultimately, COINS will comprise facilities and cooperative research at all four institutions.

The center's research focuses on the development of low-power, manufacturable and multifunctional nanomechanical systems. Researchers describe their development method as an “element-to-device-to system” approach. They will first seek to create nanomechanical “building blocks” - microscopically small tubes, disks, wires and other basic shapes - and understand their properties. Then they can proceed with theories and ultimately experiments about how to put those building blocks together into useful nanomechanical systems.

Inspiration for nanomechanical innovation can even be drawn from living organisms - the stickiness of gecko feet or the strength of spider silk may be replicated in nano materials. Participating researchers hope that the advances in nanomechanical engineering that come from COINS will eventually impact fields such as chemical and biological sensing, medical diagnostics, data storage, computation, communication and power generation.

As one of its important emphases, the center will help prepare students to participate in the growing field of nanotechnology as part of its mission.

“We plan to direct UC Merced's share of the grant toward funding undergraduate research internships in UC Merced investigators' labs, the development of online course tools in nanotechnology, and summer internships,” said Professor Valerie Leppert, the principal investigator for the UC Merced portion of the COINS grant. Leppert specializes in the study of semiconductor quantum dots, and other small particles used for nanotechnology, with the transmission electron microscope.

Also participating in COINS are Leppert's colleagues, professors Christopher Viney and Tom Harmon. Viney specializes in engineering materials inspired by natural materials such as the spider and gecko examples mentioned above, while Harmon will work on sensor-related applications for nanomechanical technology, designed to be useful in environmental and water research.