Edition 2015

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Thinking Big about Small Things

By Justin Bannister ’03 ’13

A photo of tissue taken through a microscope

Nanotechnology, or “molecular manufacturing,” refers to the ability to build things one atom at a time.

Physicist and entrepeneur Seamus Curran is leading NMSU’s new nanotechnology initiative

Seamus Curran hopes something very small will lead to something very big for NMSU – and New Mexico.

Curran, a physicist with an entrepreneurial spirit, joined the NMSU faculty last year to develop a nanotechnology initiative for the university. Nanotechnology, or “molecular manufacturing,” refers to the ability to build things one atom at a time. Curran notes that nanotechnology has been used in nature for thousands of years. The gecko, for example, has millions of submicron hairs on its legs that enable it to scale glass windows.

Seamus Curran is shown here working with other research team members

Seamus Curran (center) works with research team members Amanda Ellis, James Dewald and Wudelyew Wondmagegn.”

According to the National Science Foundation, the market for nanotechnology products will be $1 trillion to $2 trillion by 2015. This will include products ranging from aerospace to cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. A “microneedle,” for example, could administer medications between pores so that patients wouldn’t feel a thing.

Curran hopes to make New Mexico a center for three areas within nanotechnology: power systems, water (hydrology) and materials. In the area of power systems, Curran says nanotechnology could be used to make carbon nanotubes to store hydrogen for fuel cells or enhance the efficiency of solar cells. Nanotechnology could help increase New Mexico’s dwindling water supply by developing new desalination technologies. Or nano-sensors could protect our water supply from contamination. In the materials field, nanotechnology could help make stronger materials for the aerospace industry, which has a major presence in New Mexico. It also could be used to sense cracks or fractures in aircraft.

Curran notes that New Mexico is already the third leading state in terms of nanotechnology funding. Most of this is due to funding given to Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories.

Curran wants to develop research programs where nanotechnology companies will stimulate new growth and economic wealth for New Mexico. His background as both a physicist and an entrepreneur makes him uniquely qualified to lead NMSU’s nanotechnology initiative.

While working as a research scientist at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, Curran was the first person to combine carbon nanotubes with polymers in an attempt to make polymers stronger. His research has gained him widespread publication and mention in such journals as Advanced Materials, Physical Review and Science.

A photo of tissue taken through a microscope

Seamus Curran’s research team has found a way to chemically bind carbon nanotubes (shown here) to form new plastic composites with highly unusual properties. Such nanotubes could be used to greatly strengthen materials used in the automotive and aircraft industries.
The nanotubes, which are highly conductive, also could be used to prevent static build-up in electronic devices
and potentially shield such devices from electro-magnetic interference.

After completing his postdoctoral research, Curran left academia to start his own company, which produced and marketed anti-counterfeiting technology. He later advised companies on how to protect intellectual property such as nanotechnology patents (he himself already has two patents and has submitted four others with former colleagues at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Curran is working to develop a nanotechnology initiative that builds on his research as well as that of others already at NMSU. Joe Wang in Chemistry, for example, is developing sensors that involve carbon nanotubes and is building a “clean room” that can be used for molecular manufacturing.

The new labs that Curran is setting up in Gardiner Hall include some equipment not available at any other university in the United States. This equipment will enable researchers to look at vibrations in molecules at the nanoscale – a capability that is crucial in nanomanufacturing.

“When we are trying to construct things at the nanoscale, we need to be able to see if we are doing it right,” Curran says. “We need to understand the science before we know what to build.”

Many companies have already sent Curran products to test that won’t be on the market for several years.

Curran says he also hopes to get researchers from other institutions such as the University of New Mexico and New Mexico Tech to submit joint proposals for nanotechnology research.

A native of Ireland, Curran says the current economic climate in New Mexico reminds him of Ireland 12-15 years ago, when jobs were scarce. Luring new technology companies such as Intel reversed that bleak economic situation.

“The same can happen here if we build the infrastructure,” he says.

Garrey Carruthers, dean of the College of Business and Economics, agrees with Curran and is an enthusiastic supporter of NMSU’s nanotechnology initiative.

“This is an exciting field of inquiry that should lead to opportunities to create companies and jobs by commercializing the intellectual property generated by these gifted scientists,” Carruthers says. Carruthers has committed the Arrowhead Center, which is operated by the College of Business and Economics, to serve as the business consultants for commercializing nanotechnology.

“These commercialization activities will forge close working relationships between faculty and graduate students from engineering, the sciences and business,” Carruthers says.

For more information: Seamus Curran – shay@physics.nmsu.edu

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