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September 1, 2014

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Star Trek science meets UNLV

Electrical engineering professor Biswajit "BJ" Das speaks rapturously about the construction of a new science building at UNLV, the way someone else might describe a fine car or rare wine.

The cause of his passion: Inside 10,000 square feet of pristine laboratory space, Das is planning to turn science fiction into reality by creating electrical devices so tiny they are invisible to the naked eye.

Welcome to the world of nanotechnology.

For a fellow like Das, a scientist on the forefront of making nanotechnology a commercial reality, the building is a nerd's fantasy. He could not resist UNLV's offer to design his own multimillion-dollar nanotechnology laboratory from scratch.

It's what lured Das from his well-established lab at West Virginia University to UNLV in 2003, even though the engineering building was then only a blueprint.

It's also what keeps him going as his research is shackled by bureaucratic red tape and limited resources, such as having to store $250,000 of donated Intel manufacturing and imaging equipment in a hallway outside his lab until UNLV can erect a temporary trailer to hold it.

The potential payoff from Das' gamble is huge.

He's dealing in the nascent world of nanotechnology, which aims to manipulate matter at the atomic level. Among its goals are to create electrical devices as small as possible and to use nature's building blocks to create new materials that will be faster, smaller, more powerful and more efficient. The concept dates from the late 1950s, and scientists started making major strides in the field in the late 1980s.

Das, who was born outside Calcutta, India, has been a leader in his field since his doctoral days at Purdue University in the late 1980s.

His current work in manufacturing nanoelectronics and nanolighting devices is crucial to the future of the field, said Larry Cooper, who created the Navy's nanotechnology program and is now a researcher at Arizona State University's School of Engineering.

Das' work triggered the concept of spintronics, a way to improve the efficiency of transistors, Cooper said.

Transistors process information on a computer chip by measuring the charge of the electrons passing through. Das, with his adviser Supriyo Datta, showed in 1990 that scientists could design transistors that measured the spin - how an electron turned - instead of the charge. Scientists hope spintronics will lead to smaller transistors that use less electrical power. That means more powerful computer chips.

Das and Datta's theory has been widely cited and has launched $1 billion in research.

If fully realized, nanotechnology will revolutionize computers, cancer treatment and how cars are manufactured. Scientists such as Das get giddy enumerating the possible applications.

Das is positioning himself and UNLV to be on the commercial end of that revolution, showing industry how to mass-produce what scientists can only conceptualize.

But that's only if UNLV can manage to fully exploit the talent Das is offering. Recruiting superstars such as Das is key to developing UNLV as a nationally competitive research university. But the university does not yet have the financial resources, facilities or support staff to allow such researchers to excel. So for now, they are like thoroughbred horses in the starter's gate, champing at the bit to get going.

Das has a secret weapon: his wife.

It's thanks to her that Das is where he is today, on the brink of winning regents' approval to open the nanotechnology center he came here to build.

Das and "Ruby" Ranjita Chakraborty married just before he made the jump to UNLV, and they have spent their honeymoon years building his nanotechnology program from scratch.

With a master's in public relations and management experience gained in her father's steel company and her own fashion-design business, Chakraborty keeps the laboratory running so Das can focus on research. Chakraborty handles all administrative duties, including ordering Das' equipment, managing 11 grant accounts and recruiting graduate students.

Her 11-year-old son, Ronobir, has also sacrificed, spending every weekend and most holidays in the lab with his parents.

"Nanotechnology is a bus I don't want people to miss," Chakraborty said.

In less than three years, Das has brought in $2 million in research money to UNLV and another $3 million worth of equipment that was either donated or purchased with grant money.

Since 2004 he has helped write 10 journal articles, four of which are in review. He also oversees three graduate-student researchers and one postdoctoral fellow.

Das and his wife juggle research projects that explore the gamut of nanotechnology's potential. They speak of their work in bursts of energy, like youngsters boasting of their first science project. Wearing a white lab coat and glasses, Das is the quieter of the two, but he's also quick to brag about how he has designed his laboratory to best leverage his resources.

If information technology made billionaires, nanotechnology will make trillionaires, Das said, quoting Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

In the world of nanotechnology, things are measured in almost incomprehensible small sizes. The standard measurement is a nanometer - and 80,000 of them can fit on the width of a human hair. Ten hydrogen atoms measure one nanometer.

The National Science Foundation defines nanotechnology as anything smaller than 100 nanometers. Das is trying to build devices five to 10 nanometers in size.

The goal of Das' main work in nanoelectronics is to create new devices or computer parts that are faster, more powerful, and as tiny as possible. The dream: computers the size of a sugar cube.

Researchers in nanotechnology are essentially trying to mimic nature, which takes a few basic materials and, atom by atom, creates something as complex as a human being.

Current manufacturing techniques create items from the top down, whittling away at raw materials to create something new, Das said.

By building up from the molecular level instead, researchers have found they can create better materials and have greater control over fundamental properties such as color and strength.

Nanotechnology is possible because of advances in microscopes and computer imaging. But its application is limited until researchers figure out how to mass-produce electrical devices smaller than 100 nanometers.

That's where Das comes in. He has designed more precise manufacturing equipment unlike anything in the world, and he is working to create electronic devices using Intel's silicon wafers so his work can be immediately applied in the marketplace.

Das invented a machine that allows him to shoot nano-sized pieces of metals, semiconductors or insulation in patterns or layers onto silicon wafers - important progress in constructing electrical devices. Das designed the equipment, named the UNLV Nano Deposition machine, and a company in Oxford, England, built it.

An advanced version, nicknamed the "dream machine" and to be unveiled this summer, will use an electrical charge to better guide the particles to specific spots, like a magnet. This will move Das closer to building an electronic device such as a transistor on a scale one-fifth the size currently possible.

A glance at Das' own work shows the endless possibilities of harnessing microscopic particles.

Das wants regents to create a Nevada Nanotechnology Center to link advances in nanotechnology with other campus disciplines, including other engineering fields, biology and health sciences.

His goal is to attract other top-drawer researchers, both faculty and graduate students, to work at the center and increase its ability to attract federal grants and to partner with local industries on nanotechnology.

That's easier said than done, however. Das has $2 million in grant money from multiple organizations, including the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department, to hire his staff and buy his equipment. But he has no other consistent funding source to recruit faculty or to guarantee positions beyond a year at a time.

His experience at UNLV has also been less than optimum. If his wife hadn't been working alongside him to take care of the administrative issues, he said he would have returned to West Virginia.

UNLV has a long way to go to build the support structure necessary to aid researchers such as Das, said Engineering Dean Eric Sandgren and Tom Williams, executive director of UNLV's Research Foundation.

Part of the challenge, Sandgren said, includes freeing Das from the day-to-day headaches of operating the lab so he can focus on research.

The College of Engineering is strapped for space until the new building is finished in 2008, and it needs to add professors in every department if it wants to compete for grants, Sandgren said.

In the meantime, the Research Foundation is raising money to at least be able to pay Chakraborty for her time, Williams said. Chakraborty just wants to see the university "get more mileage out of BJ."

"What keeps me going," she said, "is that I think he can make something that really can be of use in the world."

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