Nanotech becomes a ‘mega’ deal
Mike Zach grew up in Monroe, Wis., a town with, by his estimation, “40,000 cows and 10,000 people.” He had no scientific role models, no one to suggest that he too could produce work that appeared on the cover of Science magazine. Zach wants to change that going forward.
“I have a very strong passion for trying to create opportunities for people who feel disconnected,” said the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Associate Professor of Chemistry.
Nanotechnology is the vehicle Zach is using to create these opportunities for young students, while simultaneously developing scientific methods that could have a huge impact on its scale, cost and environmental impact. His path to this point was anything but straight.
Zach began his college career at UW-Stevens Point, where while majoring in chemistry with an intention to enter the medical field he discovered he did not like medicine. After stops at a few other colleges and tech schools, he earned a diploma in jewelry design and repair from a technical school in Green Bay, and traveled to Florence, Italy, for an 18-month apprenticeship with a monk. He then returned to Monroe and operated a jewelry shop for six-plus years.
During that time he became interested in environmental issues, particularly those related to mining and groundwater contamination. This led him to environmental chemistry, to figure out how to make the smartphones, tablets and other devices we consider essential more environmentally friendly.
“If you look at current nanotechnology, the way it’s done is a top-down, brute force method,” Zach said. “It is a very poor technology that creates a lot of pollution. Everything is done in multimillion-dollar clean rooms. We need to find alternative ways of doing that.
“I set off to find out how nature can build things with elegance and very low energy. Now I have systems that can provide the right conditions to grow the pattern nanowires, coax it there with as little as half a volt of force to form the types of structures we want it to form.”
The ability to pattern nanowires in this fashion makes them suitable for use in advanced manufacturing such as transistors, sensors, solar cells and electronic components. Speeding up nanowire production while at the same time making it less expensive creates efficiencies for large companies and reduces the barrier to entry for startups.
“Nanotechnology can be applied to every facet of society, and to be able to take and make reliable patterned nanowires in huge quantities is going to open up entirely new fields,” said Zach, who has involved approximately 70 UW-Stevens Point students in his research. “Existing companies may gain a very large competitive advantage if they can replace a $20 million process with something inexpensive, and startup companies may be enabled to enter the realm of nanomanufacturing. Startup costs could drop from $20 million or $50 million, to $10,000 or less.”
The most prominent manifestation of Zach’s efforts is NanoFab Lab … in a Box!, a shoebox-sized educational kit for easy, rapid duplication of patterned nanowires without the need for a multimillion-dollar clean room. NanoFab Lab was selected as one of Research and Design Magazine’s R&D 100 Awards, often referred to as the “Oscars of Innovation.”
Zach hopes to place upwards of 5,000 NanoFab Labs in schools during the next three years, engaging students in science in a new, meaningful way. Doing so would accomplish two goals.
One is a grassroots marketing campaign to build awareness of Zach’s method for growing nanowires among technology decision makers. Target areas for this push include schools in technology hubs like Chicago, Silicon Valley, North Carolina’s Research Triangle and Boston.
“There are a lot of people in high-tech sectors looking for ways to make nanotechnology inexpensively,” Zach said. “I want their son or daughter to come home and say, ‘Mommy, Daddy, look what I did today in school! It’s nanotechnology!’ The fact that it can be done in a pill bottle in a classroom comes as a great surprise to their parents.”
The other target area for the NanoFab Lab is schools in rural and inner-city areas, as well as tribal schools. There is no secondary professional intended audience in these settings, just one that has gone undercultivated.
“Right now if we don’t bring them in and tell them, ‘You play a critical role in our society,’ we’ve lost them,” said Zach. “What good is society if you don’t use half the people? When you have a student who says, ‘Science isn’t my thing, I can’t do science,’ you have them grow nanowires in that way and say, ‘Don’t tell me you can’t do cutting edge science because you just did. It’s possible – don’t tell me it isn’t.’
“NanoFab Lab … in a Box! is a win-win-win for everybody that gets involved in it.”