Covered in his cleanroom suit, a CNSE employee holds up
Chips, Big Investment
Propelled to the forefront of nanotechnology, a Capital Region
college continues to grow
Photos by Chris Shields
Thousands of people drive past it daily. There at the corner
of Fuller Road and Washington Avenue Extension, the massive
$3.5 billion Albany NanoTech complex looms like a physical
prediction of the future landscape. This complex, taken for
granted on our drives to Crossgates Mall or Stuyvesant Plaza,
houses the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at
the University at Albany, the country’s first comprehensive
college of nanoscale sciences.
Started in 2001, the college represents a close relationship
between the state, SUNY and industry leaders. Top state officials,
notably former Gov. George Pataki and Assembly Speaker Sheldon
Silver, have banked hundreds of millions of New York state
taxpayers’ dollars—$600 million to date—on this complex and
CNSE. Business giants, such as IBM and Sematech among others,
have invested huge amounts, as well.
Originally, the college had 72 employees partially housed
on the UAlbany campus and partially in the building it would
soon take over, the Center for Environmental Sciences and
Technology Management (the green-and-white “spaceship”). In
the following six years, CNSE grew dramatically, overwhelming
the CESTM building, adding two more buildings to its complex,
and bringing in 1,500 college and industry employees.
And another $300 million is set to be invested. Still in limbo,
as of this writing, a bill, which would designate $300 million
for Sematech to move its national headquarters to CNSE, is
winding its way through the state government. Having passed
the Assembly, the bill awaits a vote in the Senate.
also have plans to build a fourth building. Another 250,000
square feet. So when all is said and done we’ll have about
700,000 square feet of space, including roughly close to 100,000
square feet of cleanroom space. And you will not see that
on any other college campus in the world,” says Steve Janack,
assistant vice president for marketing and communications,
standing in the lobby of NanoFab 300 North.
The proposed NanoFab 300 East will cost upwards of $100 million
to construct, with a completion date set for next year. It
will bring in an estimated 500 more employees.
With the head of CNSE now the highest-paid state worker, making
$667,000 a year, many people question the wisdom of the amount
of money the state has laid at the feet of the college. But
the college counters these concerns, pointing to its early
successes. CNSE has twice been honored in the industry’s top
trade magazine, Small Times, as one of the leaders
in nanoscale academic research. In 2006, the magazine rated
the college No. 1 in the country. This year, it ranked No.
1 in the world.
Plus, for every dollar the state has invested, Janack adds,
private industry has invested five, pushing the Capital Region
to the forefront of nanotechnology research.
is not the product. It is not something you make,” Janack
says. “It is the know-how.”
In a time when the flight of young New Yorkers out of the
state causes much hand-wringing in the Capital Region, some
are gambling that this nanotech “know-how” will play a significant
role in growing a new economic future. And so far, at least
for CNSE, the gamble appears to be paying off.
The long, carpeted hallways of NanoFab 200 (formerly the CESTM
building) have the look of an office building abandoned to
mad scientists. “This building wasn’t really built for us,”
says Michael Fancher, the assistant vice president for Economic
Outreach and associate professor of Nanoeconomics. “So we
have done a lot of modifications to it. When we came in, the
bulk of our operations were still over on campus.”
Scattered throughout the building are rooms, no bigger than
utility closets, cluttered with Cat-5 cable and computer equipment.
Multimillion-dollar ion- and electron-microscopes stand alone
in small office rooms.
won’t find microscopes like these at any other university,”
Vacuum pumps circulate the air in cleanrooms and fill the
hallways with a gentle whir. Fancher points out engineers
working behind glass in a hyper-maintained environment.
the system: A CNSE grad student is busy with research.
use this lab primarily to develop sensors, MEMS [Micro-Electro-Mechanical
Systems]—mechanical devices on the surface of a chip,” he
says. “So we can make biosensors, and actuators, which are
triggers.” The airbag sensors in your car are actuators, he
says—tiny fingers that, when shocked, strike each other and
signal for the bag to be deployed.
In NanoFab 300 North, Fancher pauses in front of another cleanroom.
This one is massive. The hallway is lined by floor-to-ceiling
windows. Workers in white cleanroom suits slowly mill about
state-of-the-art, multimillion dollar machines. This is part
of the Sematech program.
Sematech has been in the news a lot lately due to a $300 million
state-funding bill. The Austin, Texas-based consortium is
made up of leading computer-chip companies—IBM, Intel, and
others—who have pooled their money for research and development.
The focus of the Sematech research in this cleanroom is lithography,
the process of using light to etch images on smooth surfaces
that is at the base of computer-chip manufacturing.
Lithography has been practiced in the art world since the
turn of the 19th century. In computer-chip manufacturing,
lithography is used to pattern a chip’s structure on wafers,
round discs of ultra-pure silicon.
The process is simple: Light is projected through a negative
with a circuit design patterned onto it. The image is projected
onto a wafer. Wherever the light touches, it changes the chemical
composition of the silicon, binding it like the weave of a
sweater. Then the wafer is exposed to an etching process.
Whatever material has bound remains. Everywhere else is eaten
The chip’s elements—wells that hold electrons and the wire
structures that run throughout—are now embedded in this silicon
matrix, and an insulating layer is put down. Then the process
is repeated: more metal, a pattern is imprinted again, then
etched, and over and over. Below this cleanroom, Fancher says,
complex computer systems track the tools and roughly 900 process
steps that go into making a computer chip.
Over the tall lithography tools, cranes hang. Saratoga Springs’
Zenter Handling builds these specialized 1- and 5-ton cranes,
used to lift the light source into the massive lithography
machines, a delicate procedure used for servicing. Building
these cranes has forced Zenter Handling to shift from constructing
the standard industry cranes, used for moving heavy stuff
quickly, to ones that move heavy stuff slowly and with extreme
it has opened up an entirely new business for them of exact
motion,” Fancher says. “And their customers are Sematech,
the college, IBM.”
are multiple examples of the college reaching out to local
businesses,” Janack adds. “There is a local plumbing-and-heating
company, Campito in Latham, that had to learn how to do plumbing
and ventilation work specifically for a cleanroom, which is
different than for a normal room. But now that they have done
it, it has become 20 percent of their business. And they are
now marketable to go out and do this work for other places.”
M&W Zander, from Germany, designed and built these high-tech
cleanrooms. Five years ago, they had no employees in the region.
Now, they have more than 250. Vistec Lithography will be moving
its operation from England to Albany. Into this cleanroom
space, they will move their research-and-development operation,
with manufacturing going on over at the Watervliet Arsenal.
They plan to create 130 jobs.
This is the type of growth that CNSE boasts it is bringing
to the region.
we can turn around a cannon- manufacturing site,” says Fancher,
“we can turn any place around.”
university’s approach is to do co-location,” says Fancher,
referring to the college’s partnership with industry and state
partners. “This represents a new model where industry, university
and government form a partnership. You co-locate the university’s
faculty and students with industry’s researchers. That implies
that the companies come in with their own preexisting intellectual
property, but they are missing some element to bring that
technology to fruition, to market. So what the college has
done is focus on unique facilities, unique infrastructure,
that many companies want to integrate their piece of the solution
to the overall process.”
The college has 250 research partnerships with corporations
like IBM, Sony, Toshiba, AMD, and local companies like the
energy companies Plug Power and Day Star, and Rensselaer’s
Applied Nanoworks. “We have partnerships with them that is
allowing them to advance their technology,” he says. “They
are using the tools here to advance their technology, get
to market quicker and become profitable.”
everybody into close collaboration is essential,” Janack adds.
“So what we have done here is create an ecosystem of R&D
and manufacturing. So now, rather than just a lab that has
a tool that is made just for research, we have the tools that
can do the research and also support advanced manufacturing.
We are relevant to a broad scope of companies because we can
satisfy their long-term, medium-term and short-term horizons.”
opportunity: (l-r) Students Bresin and Miller are happy
to be here.
is not just access to the tools, he continues, that has attracted
businesses to CNSE, but being in close proximity to others
in the complimentary fields also allows access to potential
you are the little guy,” he says, “and you are wondering how
you break in and get the attention of your customers, having
a partner like CNSE can be a real bonus. When you can say
that this $3 billion complex is my home, there’s a lot more
Another important element of this “co-location” equation are
the students. Nearly 125 graduate students attend the college
currently, and they are able to work in close quarters with
the industry researchers.
Christopher Miller, a native of Iowa, spent last summer interning
on-site with IBM.
work I did with IBM complements what I am learning at CNSE,”
says Miller. “On a daily basis, I am doing my research, and
IBM is doing their research. So we don’t cross paths a lot.
But having the internship with IBM helped me get up close
and personal. And having IBM here on site helped me with that.”
Matthew Bresin, who also interned with IBM in 2006, went on
to work with the company part-time during the fall semester.
He agrees with Miller: The experience was invaluable, but
as much for IBM as for the students.
I had to sum up the experience, I would say that IBM is always
very interested in extending relationships with the college,”
he says. “I get to see how the fab works, and they get to
see what we are doing as far as research. It is just beneficial
is such a broad term,” Miller says. “Here we focus a lot on
the electronic side of it. There are more chemistry-based
sides, where you are building the structures from the small
atoms and making clusters.”
Nanotechnology is based simply on scale. “Nanotechnology is
a buzzword. We are in the electronics business. We do nanoscale
electronics. Somebody doing makeup is doing nanotechnology,
but their nanotechnology is nothing like our nanotechnology.”
But all of these separate scientific studies of the nanoscale,
for Miller and Bresin, represent the future of science.
are in a box on global warming, we are in a box on taking
care of our elderly and health care, we are in a box on homeland
security,” Fancher says. “What are we going to do? We are
going to embed intelligence with telemetry, with sensing and
power. And we are going to tackle these problems.”
is really a key concept that everyone needs to look at. Simply
because of world issues—world issues and environmental issues,”
Bresin adds. “Semicon drives so much industry, but you also
have to realize that with the materials-development that you
are getting with that industry, you are also creating more
industry, and one of those is renewable energy. Next-generation
solar cells, fuel cells—you are basically looking at silicon
devices. A lot of that stuff is driven by the stuff going
on at this college. So it isn’t just about your cell phone
or laptop, it also affects really important world issues.”
nanotechnology is such a big buzzword,” he adds, “as compared
to micro-electronics and biotechnology, is that characteristics
of materials on a nanoscale are much different than they are
on any other scale. As you get smaller and smaller, materials
start doing strange stuff. That door”—he points to a typical
office door—“on the nanoscale will not behave in the same
way it does there. Newton’s Laws don’t apply. We are redefining