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MIT to spend big to make stuff small

A $350 million building project being unveiled Tuesday by MIT will expand the space on campus for nanotechnology research, allowing hundreds more scientists access to cutting-edge tools to manipulate matter at the smallest scales.

The building, dubbed “MIT.nano,” will be located at the heart of the campus near the university’s iconic dome.

It will double the size of the nanotechnology clean room and imaging facilities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and support projects in which researchers work at the nano scale. A nanometer is about 1/100,000th the thickness of a human hair.

That kind of precise engineering and control has become important when scientists are thinking about developing, for example, smarter ways to encapsulate cancer-fighting drugs or to develop new coatings for steam turbines.


“One nanometer is really the operative unit for what MIT faculty does these days,” said Vladimir Bulovic, the faculty leader of the project and associate dean for innovation at the School of Engineering. “Is it that we’re trying to make a better cement and we need to engineer those molecules? Or are we thinking about nanomedicines? Or a switch for the next iPhone 7 coming down the line? Or a new display technology? A lot of it engages in some way in the nanoscale.”

Nanotechnology has become a booming field of research in Massachusetts. Several of the National Science Foundation’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers are located in Massachusetts: for examples, one at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the other a collaboration that includes Northeastern University, UMass Lowell, and the University of New Hampshire. Harvard University completed a building to facilitate nanotechnology research in 2007.

Bulovic said MIT’s central nanotechnology imaging and fabrication laboratories were built in the 1990s and were designed to support 70 researchers; today there are 700 vying to use the facilities. Many faculty members have developed individual laboratories with nanotech capabilities, but there was a need for a central lab that could also be used for teaching, fabricating prototypes, and housing equipment that would be too costly for one laboratory to purchase. The new center will support 2,000 researchers.


Ahmed Busnaina, director of the NSF Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing at Northeastern, said that nanotechnology is a strong sector in the state and that it is a timely moment for the field. After more than a decade of basic science research, some of the insights are ready to be translated into manufacturing techniques.

A strength of the nanotechnology community, he said, has been the way research institutions have collaborated. “We have all these facilities,” said Busnaina, “and the directors meet on a regular basis to facilitate access across universities” to students and researchers.

The planned 200,000-square-foot MIT building, to be completed in 2018, will replace Building 12, just northeast of the dome. Bulovic said that in addition to the building cost, the university will spend $100 million on related construction work and necessary upgrades.

Kripa Varanasi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, said his laboratory is working on devising superslippery coatings. Potential applications span a wide range, from helping condiments slide out of bottles more easily to increasing efficiency of steam turbines used to generate electricity.

Varanasi said his lab often takes advantage of Harvard’s facilities, and he thinks that having expanded facilities on MIT’s campus will help spawn greater innovation.


“Having a facility where you can just go in and plug and play will be incredible, and I think it’ll form a big part of this ecosystem as an entrepreneurship powerhouse,” Varanasi said.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@