Twenty-first century mill town: Lowell trades
textiles for nanotechnology
BY JOHN PIKE
LOWELL, Mass.—In the early 19th century, northern Massachusetts entrepreneurs brought British advanced technology and southern cotton to the shores of the Merrimack River in Lowell, creating one of the first American industrial cities. It was the implementation of new technologies that created a vibrant, mill-based economy.
But as the Lowell textile industry relocated to far-away places, the mills were abandoned by all except the legendary ghosts of the “Mill girls.” But Lowell is rising again, this time by its own creative juices. Lowell’s mills are becoming a hub for the potentially explosive nanotechnology industry.
The city’s largest educational body, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, began as a technological research institution for the local textile industry. Today, the college’s Nanomanufacturing Center of Excellence, with a $12.4 million federal grant shared with Northeastern University and the University of New Hampshire at Durham, is ready to help local businesses.
“The school’s presence encourages businesses involved in this industry to locate locally,” said Joey Mead, a nanotechnology scientist and professor at UMass Lowell. “They will directly benefit.”
Nanotechnology is the name for a host of technologies, processes and techniques involving the manipulation of molecules and atoms. Its key aspect is the atomic scale at which it takes place. Ten hydrogen atoms arranged in a row is one nanometer; a pinhead is about one million nanometers wide. Nanotechnology began after the invention of the atomic force microscope in the 1980s. Prior to that time, matter at the nanoscale level was invisible. However, once scientists could see it, they could start learning to manipulate it.
The potential for nanotechnology lies in the fact that the rules of physics as we commonly understand for the larger world are broken at this tiny scale. For small particles, the electronic properties can be very different than the bulk materials they make up. And since the ratio of the surface area compared to the volume is much higher at the nanoscale, and because surface atoms are often more reactive, the properties of the materials behave differently.
Startling inventions in health care are also possible using nanotechnology. Scientists are working on a nanoscale, protein-based drug for treating metastastic breast cancer that will travel into places its existing larger counterpart could not without severe side effects for the patient. Customized medical treatments will use nanoparticles that dovetail with the particular genetic profile of a patient’s cancer cells. These particles will be programmed to cull out and destroy cancer cells.
Scientists have manufactured molecules that self-assemble into tiny medicine delivery systems that can encapsulate drugs and bring them to their destination, using the human body’s own system to transport them. Since the delivery of the drug is more precise, sometimes far smaller amounts of many drugs can be prescribed, thereby limiting side effects and increasing its desired effect. Biosensors may also be created that can be implanted into our bodies to detect diseases.
“One of the reasons for [the grant] was to promote economic development in this area,” said Carol Barry, a UMass Lowell nanotechnology professor and scientist.
Mead adds that Lowell’s nanotechnology research focuses in on “manufacturing processes that can be used by industry, such as creating templates to control how nano-elements are placed.” Breakthrough polymer research at UMass-Lowell led to the creation of Lowell-based Konarka Technologies. Konarka is a global company that produces flexible, low-cost photovoltaic cells that convert light into energy. Other research in specially designed antioxidants was the basis of the start-up company, Polnox, also in Lowell, which specializes in production and sale of antioxidants. Hubbard estimates there are between 150 and 175 Massachusetts companies either doing nanotechnology research or are closely related to it.
Tom Hubbard, a nanotechnology advisor to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, says there are other area schools besides Lowell doing this novel research. Harvard University’s nanotechnology research has a focus on chemistry and chemical engineering, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a general approach, but also places an effort on military applications. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, flush with a recent awarding of a $16 million grant, emphasizes electronics manufacturing and work with three dimensions, says Hubbard. Northeastern University has a particular emphasis on manufacturing processes with electrical devices and UNH also researches manufacturing techniques.
Mead believes that companies will be able to access the university’s equipment and space to work with students, and hire or fund them. UMass Lowell presently has about 25 nanotechnology students, and Massachusetts has one of the highest per capita concentrations of nanotechnology funding in the United States. Mead also hopes that area businesses take advantage of the proximity of the nanotech center and schedule visits and tours.
Twenty-first century mill town: Lowell
trades textiles for nanotechnology