Indian Americans Shining in Nanotechnology   
by: Francis C. Assisi

Boston, 1 March -- The trend is inescapable. Indian Americans are big, really big, in the world of the very small.

So much so that in the past five years they have emerged as important players in the science and business of nanotechnology. Clearly, they have become a force to reckon with. Working with atoms and molecules from the bottom up, Indian American scientists at government labs, educational institutions, and corporate facilities are emerging in the forefront of what is being heralded as the next technological frontier, with major innovations anticipated in virtually every industry and public sector.

At NASA, at DARPA, at major university centers, at the DOEs National Laboratories, at defense research establishments, among the outcropping of start-ups, as well as among venture capitalists, Indian Americans are becoming a force to reckon with. This is at a time when nanotechnology, or the ability to manipulate and organize matter and structures from the atomic up to the molecular scales, is being heralded as a vastly more powerful technology than ever seen before. Which is why the U.S. government is investing 1 billion dollars for its National Nanotechnology Initiative this year.

Nanotechnology applies to everything from medicine to industrial materials to agriculture. But it offers particularly attractive opportunities for the electronics industry. These opportunities are taking form in both large and small ways, from broad research initiatives at major electronics companies to finely focused business strategies at venture-capital-financed start-ups.

Consider the most recent nanotechnology conferences.

Two out of the ten keynote speakers at the upcoming Nanotech 2004 in Boston March 7-11 are Indian Americans: Meyya Meyyappan , Director, Center for Nanotechnology, NASA and Tejal Desai, Director, Laboratory of Therapeutic Microtechnology, Boston University. Meyyappan is scheduled to speak on ‘Novel one-dimensional Nanostructures’, while Desai will give a presentation on ‘Nanotherapeutics – the Future of Medicine’.

The second annual ‘Nanotech in Defense Materials’ conference being held Feb 19-26, 2004 in Hawaii is drawing some notable Indian American scientists. Among the main speakers: Pallab Bhattacharya and Anupam Madhukar, scientists who are leading researchers in nanomaterials.

When the 3rd annual Nanotechnology Investing Forum of the International Business Forum, was held February 3, 2004, in Palm Springs, California, the event was chaired by Meyya Meyyappan, along with a special keynote presentation by Vinod Khosla General Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

At the 11th Foresight Conference in Burlingame, California, in October 2003, where cutting edge work on nanotechnology is often presented, again there were some prominent Indian American names: Meyya Meyyappan, Gautam vemuri, Ravi Shankar, Amitesh Maiti, Gopikrishnan Soundararajan, Apparao Rao, and Rajan Lukose.

In August 2003, when IEEE conducted a technical program ‘Nano 2003’, the opening and plenary sessions as well as the panel discussion on Nanotechnology Venture Opportunities were led by Meyya Meyyappan. The sessions on Spintronics and Nanomagnetics was chaired by Supriyo Bandyopadhyay, the session on Nanoelectronics was chaired by Narayan Aluru, and the two sessions on Nanobio Fusion were chaired by Anantha Krishnan and Arun Majumdar.

The 13 member Scientific and Advisory Board at BioMEMS and Nanotech World 2003 in August at Washington, D.C., consisted of four Indian Americans: Sangeeta Bhatia, Tejal Desai, Meyya Meyyappan, and Shuvo Roy. There were special presentations by Arun Mazumdar, Bala Manian, Anantha Krishnan, Nitin Thakor, Mak Paranjape, and Sankar Sundaram.

Who are these Indian Americans and how does their work impact this hot new field? Are they on the rising crest of the new technology wave that is drawing Indian scientists elsewhere as well?

Here is a snapshot of the major Indian American players at NASA.

Dr. Meyya Meyyappan is Director, Center for Nanotechnology, NASA/Ames Research Center (NACNT) as well as a Senior Scientist. He is a member of the Interagency Working Group on Nanotechnology established by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The IWGN is responsible for putting together the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) for which the current level of U.S. government support is pegged at $1 billion.

At Ames, Meyyappan leads over 50 scientists who are engaged in carbon nanotube(CNT) based nanotechnolgy, protein nanotubes, molecular electronics, bacteriorhodopsin based data storage, nanotechnology in gene sequencing, biosensor development, quantum computing, computational electronics, computational optoelectronics, and computational nanotechnology.

Meyyappan has a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Clarkson University. He received his undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the Regional Engineering College in Thiruchirapalli. He has been at NASA for the last seven years as the Director of the Nano Center. Prior to that, he was with Scientific Research Associates in Glastonbury, Connecticut holding various positions such as Senior Scientist, Director of the Processing group, Corporate Treasurer and Member of the Board of Directors. He was awarded NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal in 1999, and NACNT received a Group Achievement Award from NASA in 2000. The Computational Nanotechnology group of NACNT has won two Feynmann Prizes awarded by the Foresight Institute. NACNT was awarded the NASA TGIR (Turning Goals into Reality) Award in May 2002.

As director of NASA’s Ames Center for Nanotechnology, Meyyappan foresees a day when small technology touches almost every facet of space exploration. “We ultimately have to make everything very small,” says Meyyappan. “I mean, I can’t ask my astronaut to lose weight.”

With a budget of $15.4 billion, NASA is willing to put its money on the line. The agency spent $52 million on nanotech-related work in 2003. The NNI funded $36 million of that total; the rest came from various NASA operation centers investing their own dollars to gauge nanotech’s merits. The Ames Center alone has nearly 70 researchers, one of the largest single nanotechnology research efforts in the world.

NASA’s three main realms for nanotechnology are sensors, new materials and micro-electronics. Meyyappan and others expect sensors to be the first applications widely used in space. Meyyappan’s own role in carbon nanotube related research is at the leading edge of nanotechnology.

"Nanotechnology is going to be like a multi-handed god," says Meyyappan. "There´s not going to be a nanotechnology industry. It´s going to be an enabling technology." NASA officials stress, however, that outside businesses will be crucial in achieving their nanotech goals — particularly startup businesses, since much of the work is still in early development and too small for the likes of Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed or other large contractors.

“Our needs are large. … Nobody can say they have everything they need,” said Meyyappan. “In the nano arena, it’s the small companies that stand out.”

NASA also wants to commercialize its research when appropriate. The Ames Center has a licensing office and has spun out three businesses since its founding in 1996, such as Integrated Nanosystems Inc. Ames officials realized the research team could work faster and more effectively as a business while boosting the vitality of the private sector, so they helped the team form a company, put them in touch with venture capitalists, and spun out INI in 2001.

But the most powerful nanotech breakthroughs in electronics remain at least 10 years in the future. Techniques with names like molecular electronics and molecular computing could transform electronics as radically as did the giant leap from individual transistors to integrated circuits. These techniques use the physical and electrical properties of individual, or small groups of, atoms and molecules to represent, store or otherwise deal with information much as semiconductor devices do today.

Getting to that point will require major advances. For example, current methods cannot position carbon nanotubes very precisely on a substrate, notes Yoshio Nishi, director of Stanford University´s Nanofabrication Facility. Positioning them accurately enough to integrate large numbers of nanotubes on a chip will require new approaches, he says. Considering such challenges, most observers put the commercial development of such molecular electronics or computing some 10 to 15 years off. And that fits historical patterns, according to Meyyappan. For almost any major new technology, "from the time you start to do the shaking and baking in the lab to the time you see products on the street takes about 15 years," he observes.

Other Indo-American Nanotechnologists at NASA

Besides Meyyappan, there are other notable Indian Americans who are deep into nanotechnology at NASA. They include: Minoo Dastoor, Deepak Srivastava, M.P. Anantram, T.R.Govindan.

Dr. Minoo N. Dastoor is Senior Advisor to the Associate Administrator, Office of Aerospace Technology, NASA. According to Dastoor, NASA envisions aerospace vehicles and spacecraft made from materials that are ten times stronger and less than half the weight of current materials.

Dastoor, a native of Bombay, graduated with degrees in Chemistry (1960) and Polymer Chemistry (1962) - both with First Class Honor,s from the University of Bombay. He immigrated to the United States in 1962 and received an M.S. in Polymer Chemistry from the Institute of Polymer Chemistry in Akron, Ohio. After working as a Research Chemist for Goodyear Research, Dastoor went on to earn a Ph.D. in Medical Microbiology and Immunology (1976) from UCLA.

Dastoor joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1977 as Principal Investigator to design and build a prototype instrument which would detect virus particles. From 1978-1980, he was sent as a Detailee to NASA Headquarters Life Science Division in Washington, D.C. where he initiated the NASA Global Biology Program. In 1980, he returned to JPL as Lead Principal Investigator and Task Manager on the Global Biology as well as NASA´s Bioenergy Programs.

Dastoor has served as the Lead Technologist for the Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS). His specific assignment was to develop a plan for future human missions. Presently, as the Senior Advisor at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Dastoor is on a special assignment to advance technologies that exploit the huge potential resulting from the convergence between nanotechnology, biology and information systems. The Plan focuses on three areas: 1) nanomaterials, 2) nanoelectronics and information technology, and 3) sensors and microspacecrafts. The goal of the Plan is to provide the capabilities anticipated for future space mission and advanced aeronautic applications.

NASA’s missions often test limits of technology. That’s why NASA Ames Research Center scientists are exploring the use of nanotechnology to help push the limits to accomplish future missions. They are using high-performance computers to simulate and visualize behavior of physical and biological systems at the nanometer scale to help test new concepts. This computational modeling research is a success story that has led the emerging field of molecular nanotechnology. Here, again, it is Indian Americans research scientists who are shining.

Deepak Srivastava is a Senior Scientist who leads the computational nanotechnology investigations at NASA Ames Research Center. His current research interests include large scale simulations and modeling based investigations in molecular electronics, nano-phase or composite materials, design and realization of solid-state quantum computers, molecular machines and motors, and bio-mimetic devices and applications.

Srivastava, who obtained his undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Lucknow and an M.Phil (1981) from Delhi University, earned his Ph.D (1988) from the University of Florida. He has authored or co-authored about 65 technical papers and given 100 invited and contributed presentations, including many on carbon nanotubes and computational nanotechnology in recent years. He has chaired and organized many nanotechnology related conferences through out USA. With NASA Ames Computational Nanotechnology team, he is the co-winner of Feynman Prize (Theory) in molecular nanotechnology in 1997, NASA Ames Contractor Council Excellence Award in 1998, two Veridian Medal Authorship Awards in 1999, and NASA Group Excellence Award to IPT in Devices and Nanotechnology in 2000.

Five years ago, in a landmark paper entitled ‘NASA applications of Molecular Nanotechnology,’ Srivastava went on to predict: If advanced molecular nanotechnology can be developed, almost all of NASA´s endeavors will be radically improved. In particular, a sufficiently advanced molecular nanotechnology can arguably bring large scale space colonization within our grasp.’

With this in mind, Srivastava is pursuing research on Computational Nanotechnology Based Tools and Applications for Nanosystems Design ``We are like children and it´s almost like we have these Lego blocks. Now we have to figure out what we can do within the laws of physics and chemistry,´´ he once observed.

Joining Srivastava and Meyyappan in research that is expected to lead to ‘revolutionary computing’ are two other Indian Americans, M.P.Anantram and T.R.Govindan. After earning his undergraduate degree from P.S.G. college in Coimbatore, and an M.Sc from the university of Pune, M.P. Anantram completed his Ph.D (1995) from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Purdue University. Both Anantram and M.P. Govindan are involved in research in Molecular Electronics and Nanoelectronics, as well as Physical models for nanoelectronic computing. In other words, revolutionary forms of computing.

With work on this scale taking place in nanotechnology, scientists no longer argue so much over whether nanotechnology is possible. Now what everyone wants to argue about is when.

francisassisi@hotmail.com


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