My view: Nanotechnology: The big game in the Pac-12

By David Layton

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 4 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Although the University of Utah's move to the Pac-12 is exciting from a sports perspective, the school is also joining the ranks of some of the world's most prestigious research universities.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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The University of Utah's move to the Pac-12 promises exciting times ahead from an athletic perspective. Although less publicized, joining the ranks of some of the world's most prestigious research universities ushers in even more exciting times for Utah's economy.

One area of research, in particular, stands out as an unparalleled opportunity. Perhaps the largest impact for the U. may take place on a much, much smaller playing field in the realm of nanotechnology research and development.

Slice a meter-long object a billion times and you have the unit of measurement called the nano. Nanotechnology deals with the manipulation of particles at the atomic and molecular level. This science is affecting everything from medicine and energy to computing and telecommunications. It promises to make the likes of drugs, solar panels, chip manufacturing and wireless components faster, cheaper and more efficient. For example, fiber optic lasers are being studied at the U. to heat up extremely small gold nanorods inside cancer cells. This process consequently burns the cancer cells from the inside out.

Through the leadership of USTAR — the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative — the University of Utah is quickly becoming a national leader in the commercialization of nanotechnology research. The upcoming completion of a major new building on the Utah campus will further position the university for success in the sciences.

The commercialization of nanotechnology research is a high-growth economic opportunity. The global market for goods based on nanotechnology looks to expand from roughly $150 billion in 2007 to over $3 trillion in 2015. According to the independent firm Lux Research, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), reports that as of 2010, more than 1,200 companies, universities, government laboratories and other organizations across the U.S. are now involved in nanotechnology research, development and commercialization. This number is up 50 percent from the 800 organizations PEN identified in 2007.

The U. is one of 130 colleges and universities on the PEN map. Thanks to its currently operating Nanofab research lab located in the Merrill Engineering Building, the U. has long been in the nano game. The imminent opening of a new USTAR center on the U.'s campus — the James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology building — will enable the university to rise higher in the nationwide ranking in nanotechnology.

With a 23,000 square-foot nanofabrication facility, the new USTAR building is well positioned at the crossroads of the health sciences on upper campus and engineering resources on lower campus. An interdisciplinary research center, this USTAR building will encourage doctors, engineers and scientists to work together with state-of-the-art equipment in an integrated clean room environment to solve some of the toughest challenges facing the medical and scientific world.

Thanks to the well-thought design and quality construction of the building, our innovators will be able to work more creatively and more efficiently than ever before. What's more important is the impact on industry. Look at other leading nanofabrication centers around the world and you see new companies, new high-paying jobs and new products springing up nearby resulting in an economic impact far beyond the doors to the labs.

As we've come to expect, the University of Utah stands tall in this tiniest of sciences when compared to its peer institutions. According to the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) — the "BCS of Nanotech" — when it comes to schools on the nano map, the Pac-12 leads all other conferences with facilities at 11 out of 12 schools. This integrated partnership of just 14 user facilities nationwide is supported by the federal National Science Foundation. NNIN represents the most sophisticated and capable higher education nanotechnology resources in the country, if not the world.

The new James L. Sorenson Molecular Biotechnology building is truly the place to compete and collaborate when it comes to nanotechnology. Our company is proud of our part in constructing this new USTAR facility and, when it comes to nanotechnology research, to help put the University of Utah on the same level as some of the most prestigious schools in the country. The building and the on-campus talent it will house, more than ever before, will make it possible for the U. to be able to compete for bigger federal and industry-sponsored research contracts.

David Layton is the president and CEO of Layton Construction Company, is a member of the University of Utah College of Engineering National Advisory Council and sits on the Board of Trustees of University of Utah Health Care.

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