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Texas hoping federal grant creates nanotech hot spot
Nano-size Me

Texas is vying to become the next Silicon Valley in a shrinking field. More than 20 universities and colleges in the state are studying nanotechnology, and a new $500,000 educational grant will help Texas in the race to get small.

Nanotechnology is the science of very small things and involves biology, chemistry and physics. "Nano" means one-billionth, according to the Nanotechnology Foundation of Texas (NFT), with nanotechnology measuring materials in a billionth of a meter. Essentially, a nanometer is 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair.

"[Nanoscience] is things designed by man at the molecular level that have unique chemical and physical properties [and] have unique properties that don't exist in naturally occurring things," said Conrad Masterson, a spokesperson for NFT.

Nanotechnology is so new that companies are still looking for useful applications for the research, said Masterson. Nanoparticles are already used in a number of industries, including electronics, biomedicine, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Masterson equates the future of nanotechnology with the discovery of plastic in the 19th century. By 1907, scientists knew they were on to something big, but couldn't imagine the millions of uses plastic would have, he said.

"There are so many opportunities available to us that we can't imagine all of them," Masterson said.

Worker shortage
To help Texas capitalize on nanotechnology's opportunities, the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) awarded a federal grant to Texas State Technical College (TSTC) in Waco, Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and Baylor University to encourage students to pursue careers studying this new science.

Through the grant, the three schools are working with a high-tech company, Richardson-based Zyvex, which develops micro-machines for manipulating molecular material. Money provided through the grant and by Zyvex will enable as many as 50 students with internships and apprenticeships to train in nanotech-related work, said Mark Ellison, director of employee initiatives at TWC.

The grant will allow the three schools to work with Zyvex to create a curriculum designed to keep students up to date with the technology.

The grant will help pay for the upkeep of Baylor's Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research located on the TSTC campus. The money also will give students access to technology like the S100 Nanomanipulator System, which allows expanded viewing and testing on nano-sized particles, said Dr. Truell Hyde, a Baylor physics professor.

The program will be the first of its kind in the state and instrumental in creating an educated work force, Hyde said.

"The work force thing is what drives economic development," Masterson added. "Having a trained work force that understands nanotech and how to deal with it is going to be important."

Masterson said bringing these companies to Texas requires bringing in more professors to train more students.

"We need to put our hands on great professors who will recruit great students," he said. "Great students and great professors end up starting companies where they live."

The goal is to become the next Silicon Valley, Hyde said.

But the way to do it, Masterson and Ellison agree, is through education. It goes all the way down to kindergarten, Masterson said.

"We've got to get kids who understand science and who start understanding it early," he said.

Ann Holdsworth