U seeks space as tech industry grows

For more than two decades, the Nanofabrication Center has provided growing numbers of Minnesota students, researchers and outside businesses with the tools to engineer cutting-edge devices.

The new deposition machine in the Nanofabrication Center in Keller Hall will be used to deposite thin films of metals such as aluminum, titanium, and nickel onto glass wafers that will be used in the lithography process.

Erin Westover

The new deposition machine in the Nanofabrication Center in Keller Hall will be used to deposite thin films of metals such as aluminum, titanium, and nickel onto glass wafers that will be used in the lithography process.

Kathryn Elliott

Nonvolatile Electronics started out with a handful of employees in 1989 and a novel idea to create sensors using electron spin. But they needed access to expensive machines and a clean room with limited air contaminants.
They found a solution in renting time at the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Nanofabrication Center, then known as the Microelectronics Laboratory for Research.
For more than two decades, the Nanofabrication Center has provided growing numbers of Minnesota students, researchers and outside businesses with the tools to engineer cutting-edge devices. Demand for the facility and the technologies it produces has outgrown the space, College of Science and Engineering Dean Steven Crouch said.
Crouch has spent six years advocating for legislative funding for a new University physics and nanotechnology facility on the Twin Cities campus. He hopes construction can begin in a few months, but a large public construction bill is unlikely to pass this session. Lawmakers and University officials said the project would be at the top of next yearâÄôs list.
The small company that got its start at the University, now called NVE Corporation, has 52 employees and its own clean room at an Eden Prairie, Minn. facility. Clients like the U.S. Department of Defense and St. Jude Medical Inc. clamor for the companyâÄôs product, called âÄúspintronics.âÄù
In 2010, NVEâÄôs revenue increased 20 percent to $28 million.
âÄúThis field is really exploding,âÄù Nanofabrication Center Director Stephen Campbell said.
TodayâÄôs world is full of nanotech devices like computer chips, cell phone chips, LED lights and solar cells. âÄúNanoâÄù refers to matter at an atomic level âÄìâÄì a sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick.
Faculty and students from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system are also trained on the more than 30 machines the Nanofabrication Center holds, preparing them for jobs using the specialized equipment.
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts an increase in nanotechnology jobs, from 200,000 in 2010 to as many as 2 million jobs in the near future, according to the University.
The physics and nanotech building will be located west of the University Recreation Center and north of the ScholarâÄôs Walk in what is now an empty space. The old physics building, Tate Laboratory of Physics, will be repurposed for other classes.
Steven Crouch said it would be âÄúdifficult to retro-fitâÄù Tate since the new facility will require temperature and vibration controls. Plus, the building has already been remodeled half a dozen times.
The more pressing issue is whether the $81.3 million project will receive legislative funding this session. If it does, Crouch said the building could be completed by the summer of 2013.
As a capital investment, the new building should receive two-thirds of its funding from the Legislature and at least one-third from the University. At $51.3 million, itâÄôs the single largest project in Gov. Mark DaytonâÄôs proposed $1 billion bonding bill.
But with the state facing a $5 billion budget shortfall, Republican majorities in the Legislature are committed to cutting spending and are disinterested in such a large bill.
Still, the physics and nanotechnology building has been recognized by both parties as an important investment. Last session, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty approved a $4 million allocation for the facilityâÄôs planning and pre-design.
Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said although he doesnâÄôt think the bonding bill will happen until next year, this is âÄúthe type of science and research we need to do in Minnesota.âÄù Although a companion bill in the Senate has not been introduced, Capital Investment Committee member Sen. Keith Langseth, D-Glyndon, said heâÄôs working on a draft that would fully fund the project.
Crouch also said the project will go back to the Legislature next session if itâÄôs not passed this round.
In order to compete against top research schools like the University of Michigan, University of Texas and Georgia Tech, Crouch said the University of Minnesota needs to increase its grant support. He estimated the new facility will immediately enable 80 researchers and graduate students to work on high-tech projects along with 20 local industry users who donâÄôt own the equipment.
The UniversityâÄôs clean room is open around the clock, and Campbell said itâÄôs common for graduate students to work at night while industry folks come in during business hours.
Long hours and late nights have paid off in new innovations, including a wristwatch that will tell someone when to turn over or seek shade while tanning. They just have to put in their skin type and sunscreen SPF.
Another technology deposits a thin film that collects solar energy on interlocking shingles, providing electricity for a house.
ItâÄôs the kind of technology a lot of companies could spin off, Campbell said.
Langseth agreed, adding, âÄúnanotechnology is the future.âÄù