The Accelerator – Alex Biris and the UALR Nanotechnology Center

Dr. Alex Biris is working on “the next big thing” in the Arkansas Nanotechnology Center – along with scientists who are a part of an extended research network. But while his next discovery may actually be very, very tiny, chances are it will open up a large new set of doors for science, innovation, and economic development in central Arkansas. That next big thing may involve innovations in medicine, energy, or space exploration. Homeland security could even benefit from the technology coming from a very special research lab on the UALR campus.

Biris, who earned his Ph.D. in the UALR Donaghey College of Information Science and Systems Engineering, leads research in the University’s Nanotechnology Center. His work with structures as small as one-billionth of a meter in size has led to six patent applications and $1.9 million in grant funding from the federal government.

The potential for nanotechnology is endless, and scientists involved in nano-research are bound only by their imaginations – and the amount of research funding available. While the UALR Nanotechnology Center was instituted with much support from local business leaders and state entities – among them Accelerate Arkansas and the Arkansas Department of Economic Development – private corporations also supply an ample number of ideas for future exploration.

“In the nine months that the UALR Center has been in business, we have maintained high performance standards to keep up with the pace of worldwide nanoscale research,” said Executive Director Tom Walker, who also serves as the University’s Vice Provost for Innovation and Commercialization. “In order to compete, we have been working seven days a week. During these first nine months, we have published 20 papers in refereed journals or presented at International Conferences, created a significant number of patent applications, partnered with firms in and out of Arkansas, and formed one new firm in Little Rock. We expect that the Nanotechnology Center will provide the technical foundation for two to three new firms a year.”

The Nanotechnology Center is focused to meet economic development demands and create jobs to improve Arkansas’ future.

“One difference between our Center and other facilities is that we are oriented towards developing new applications of nanotechnology to meet real world needs such as more efficient solar energy production and improved medical treatments.” Walker added. “We hope that this path will result in significant economic impact as well as producing advances in our understanding of materials, structures and events which are observed at nanoscale.”

The Center is critical to the UALR Fast Forward strategic plan, which calls for commercialization of intellectual property as well as the development of a technologically skilled workforce prepared to meet Arkansas’ future needs. In 2006, state legislators recognized the critical nature of nanotechnology research and approved a $5.9 million appropriation from Arkansas General Improvement funds to establish the Arkansas Nanotechnology Center at UALR.

The Little Rock center does not function as a separate, isolated entity, however. Researchers are “committed to strengthening the nanotechnology infrastructure in Arkansas,” Biris said. They work with scientists in Fayetteville, Jonesboro, Pine Bluff, Russellville, Conway, Magnolia, and Arkadelphia – as well as researchers in Louisiana, Florida, Massachusetts, and Tennessee. In addition, scientists from Romania to France are plugged into – and contributing to – the exploration here.

“This science must be an international affair,” said Biris, originally from Romania. “While there is competition with other countries to become the first to explore and discover, there is strength in numbers. Through our affiliated scientists program, we are able to invite other scientists to become co-owners in this Nanotechnology Center and invest their knowledge and enthusiasm in a state-of-the-art, user-oriented facility focused on education, research, and economic development.”

Because nanotechnology is a relatively new field – scientifically speaking – the sky’s the limit for possible applications. The field, Biris said, has the capacity to be a “disruptive and enabling technology impacting virtually every industry, all life sciences, and medical practices.”

Nanoparticles have been around for eons. The strong shells of sea mollusks like clams and oysters are composed of nanostructured calcium carbonate bricks bound with mortar formed of carbohydrates and proteins. Windows of medieval cathedrals contain nanoparticles that glassmakers unknowingly employed for their myriad color and light-reflecting properties.

While nanoparticles have been unconsciously used for hundreds of years, scientists are focused on the “new” ability to build on a nano-scale. Researchers throughout the world are consciously using nanoparticles to improve current manufacturing processes and products, and the latest instrumentation makes it possible to manipulate the most basic building blocks.

One of the most exciting areas of research for Biris is in the biomedical field. Working with medical researchers, the Nanotechnology Center has created a nanostructural material that can serve as a framework for human tissue regeneration. While it’s too early to talk about the final research findings, Biris said the clinical results are promising.

Homeland security also stands to benefit from the research on nano-sensors that can detect radiation, gases, and explosives. These “sniffers” could be hidden almost anywhere and work constantly – like millions of tiny guard dogs working to protect Americans from dirty bombs and chemical or biological agents.

The possibilities for employing nanoparticles appear almost endless, and those with the ability to manipulate substances at the atomic level will play key roles in defining our economic future. From using nanoparticles to identify disease-causing or cancer cells and then as drug-delivery mechanisms to employing them as filters for harmful environmental contaminants, scientists like Biris are on the front line of something small enough to make a big difference for Arkansas.

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