Texas thinks small, plans Nanotech Corridor

June 11, 2001 by Amara D. Angelica

Texas wants to be the nanotech equivalent of Silicon Valley. It has a good start north of Dallas: big bucks, top talent, leading university, and proximity to nanotech pioneering company Zyvex and the Telecom Corridor. But other centers around the country are also in the race to lead the nano world.

Originally published June 11, 2001 on KurzweilAI.net.

“The science of the small received a big step forward,” said Texas state representative Brian McCall in announcing state funding of $500,000 for a new interdisciplinary Nanotechnology Research Center at the University of Texas at Dallas. “The Texas Legislature wants to see Texas at the front of the race to make North Texas into the nanotech equivalent of Silicon Valley.”

The funding complements a $2.5 million-dollar donation by James Von Ehr II, founder and CEO of Zyvex, the first molecular nanotechnology company. The additional funding “lays the foundation for UTD to build a first-rate nanotechnology program,” said Von Ehr. “By attracting distinguished researchers and gifted students, UTD is preparing to lead the next industrial revolution.”

Copyright 2000, Zyvex Corporation

James R. Von Ehr II, President, Founder and CEO of Zyvex Corporation: “First-rate nanotechnology program”

The University of Texas at Dallas has recruited two nanotech pioneers to lead the revolution. Dr. Ray Baughman, a Corporate Fellow at Honeywell International in Morristown, New Jersey, will serve as director of the UTD NanoTech Institute. Baughman has 50 U.S. patents, 170 publications, and a Ph.D. in the materials science area from Harvard University. He is well known for his research on the synthesis, properties, and applications of frontier materials such as carbon nanotubes.

He will be joined by Dr. Anvar Zakhidov, a Senior Principal Scientist at Honeywell and native of Uzbekistan who has also taught molecular science at universities in Japan and Italy. He will assume a full professorship in the UTD Department of Physics and work closely with Baughman in establishing and operating the the institute. Zakhidov holds a Ph.D. degree in physics (optics) from the Institute of Spectroscopy of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He is well known for his work in such areas as superconducting fullerides and photoinduced charge transfer in fullerene polymer systems.

Courtesy of Honeywell Corporation

Professors Zakhidov (left) and Baughman have pioneered photonic crystals and carbon nanotube fibers

“Drs. Baughman and Zakhidov bring an extraordinary range of talents to the center,” said Von Ehr. “The researchers at Zyvex are excited at the prospect of working with such well-known leaders in the field.”

Three other nanotechnology researchers will also join the institute: Dr. Alan Dalton of Trinity University in Dublin, Ireland, Dr. Igor Efimov of Russia from Leicester University in the U.K. and Dr. Edgar Munoz of the University of Saragossa in Spain.

NanoTech Corridor

“With the addition of this new concentration of research and educational resources, we believe that The University of Texas at Dallas can become the center of a ‘Nanotech Corridor,’ focused on the tremendous potential of nanotechnology,” said Baughman.

The proposed Nanotech Corridor consists of The University of Texas at Dallas, located at the convergence of Richardson, Plano and Dallas, and Zyvex, in Richardson, which plans to drive its growth.

The company is well positioned for that. Zyvex has a 20-year visionary plan to create technology for atomically precise manufacturing, using “exponential assembly” to make huge numbers of miniature robotic arms working together to assemble miniature parts and atomic/molecular manipulation, using proximal probes (using a scanning tunneling microscope and atomic force microscope) and developing a nanomanipulator for construction with atomic precision. The company is also developing automated manufacturing–design and construction of assemblers capable of handling thousands of sub-micron components at high speed, using microelectromechanical systems to prototype systems that can be built today at relatively low cost.

Copyright 2000, Zyvex Corporation

Ultra-High Vacuum Scanning Tunneling Microscope lets Zyvex scientists manipulate individual atoms

In addition, Zyvex is involved with fundamental nanochemistry research for modeling and experimental exploration of construction materials and protocols for building devices from the bottom-up and localized deposition and etching, using directed-beam manipulation of atoms, molecules and clusters.

What starts to make this grand vision realistic is that Zyvex and UTD are located in the heart of the existing Telecom Corridor, one of the highest concentrations of leading-edge telecommunications and technology-based companies in the world, with about 90,000 workers and nearly 25,000,000 square feet of space.

Courtesy City of Richardson, TX

Texas Telecom Corridor: five intense miles

“There are 700 tech companies in the Telecom Corridor and nearly 2,000 within a ten-mile radius,” said Telecom Corridor president Ron Robinson. “About 10% might possibly be involved in further development of nanotechnology.”

“Synergism between the present Telecom Corridor and the evolving Nanotech Corridor can strengthen both corridors,” says Baughman. “For example, photonic crystals having nanoscale structural fidelity can switch light like semiconductors switch electrons.” This technology can be critical for companies involved in optical switching and wave-division multiplexing in fiber-optics transmission lines, said Zakhidov, who recently developed the concept of tunable photonic crystals1. These have potential applications in optoelectronics and telecommunications.

Several other promising spinoff industries are likely to evolve from Baughman’s pioneering research in developing ultrastrong carbon nanotube fibers2, which have an extremely high surface area of more than 300 square meters per gram. This property allows huge amounts of electrical charge to be injected, forming the basis for supercapacitors and electrochemically driven artificial muscles3 that might be used for robotics, nanosize motors, and artificial hearts and limbs

The large surface area might also be used for electrical energy storage and harvesting. These fibers might some day be woven to create ultrastrong wonder fabrics or even used to tether a satellite to Earth, as suggested by nanotech researchers Yakobson and Smalley.

However, building an ambitious technopolis is not easy, said Robinson. “We could become the Nanotech Corridor, but it might take decades to do it and we are just starting. However, we already have a great deal of excitement and activity going on here, so in a matter of five years we could be well on our way. We have already proposed starting a Nanotechnology luncheon series in the fall of 2001 and feel an attendance of 100 per month could be developed.”

Zyvex has also spearheaded the formation of the Texas Nanotechnology Initiative, a statewide effort to bring nanotechnology companies, universities, researchers, and funding together to create an environment conducive to the rapid commercialization of nanotechnology in Texas and position it as the Nanotechnology State. Key members include UTD, Texas Instruments, SMU, UT Southwestern Medical School, Technology Business Council, STARTech, Vortex Partners, North Texas Technology Council, University of North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington, and Austin Ventures.

The other major nanotech effort in Texas is centered around Houston’s Rice University Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology and Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc., founded in 2000 by a group of Rice University professors. The company has received $15 million venture-capital funding to manufacture carbon nanotubes–an elongated version of the buckyball, a discovery that won Rice professors Richard E. Smalley and Robert F. Curl the 1996 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

Messing with Texas

Meanwhile, other areas of the country are revving up their own plans to become the nano-Silicon Valley. “From a funding standpoint, Texas has a ways to go to be number one, but this is a start,” said Christine L. Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, noting the $100 million raised by the California NanoSystems Institute, based in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Other viable contenders include communities around the University of Washington, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Georgia, she says.

Courtesy Foresight Institute

Peterson: “cultural barriers”

“However, the edges are blurry: much of the R&D at places like IBM, MIT and Stanford merges into nanotechnology seamlessly. In the long term, the word ‘nanotechnology’ goes away as it becomes an integral part of technology.”

What’s more, the biggest barrier to developing scaled-up nanotech is cultural, says Peterson, “particularly between chemists and engineers. There’s a shortage of system engineers who can think in terms of molecules, and the chemists don’t even realize they need them.” UTD’ s innovative academic plan for the institute should help: it will bring together faculty, researchers and students from at least five academic areas in an integrated curriculum including chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and biological sciences.

“‘Nanotech Corridor’ could just be a marketing term, but there’s nothing small about nanotech–it fits well with Texas’ big vision. If Texans decide they will be the leaders, they will almost certainly be a major player,” concluded Peterson.


1. A. A. Zakhidov, R. H. Baughman et al.: “Carbon Structures with Three-Dimensional Periodicity at Optical Wavelengths,” Science, 284, 897 (1998).

2. R. H. Baughman et al: “Artificial muscles,” Science 284, 1340 (1999).