MIT Launches New "SENSE.nano" Center Before the Opening of "MIT.nano"

A panel discussion on the future of sensing technologies, moderated remotely by NPR talk show host Tom Ashbrook (not seen here), featured (from left to right) MIT Professor Vladimir Bulovic, The Engine President and CEO Katie Ray, MIT Professor David Mindell, Massachusetts Assistant Secretary of Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship Katie Stebbins, and MIT Professor James Collins. CREDIT: Michael D. Spencer.

Prior the official launch of the new MIT.nano building that is proposed to house some of the world’s superior facilities for research in nanotechnology and nanoscience, MIT last week officially opened a new “center of excellence” known as the SENSE.nano. The center is devoted to expand the boundaries of studies related to sensing technologies.

Similar to the new building expected to be opened after nearly a year later, SENSE.nano is an attempt towards breaking the barriers between the divisions of departments, labs, and schools to cover research in fields such as biology, chemistry, electronics, physics, materials science, computer science, mechanical engineering, and the like. Faculty members belonging to many such fields discussed about their study as part of a daylong conference held on 25 May 2017, which indicated the official launch of the new center.

[MIT.nano] will create opportunities for research and collaboration for more than half our current faculty, and 67 percent of those recently tenured. In fact, we expect that it will serve – and serve to inspire – more than 2,000 people across our campus, from all five MIT schools, and many more from beyond our walls. Famous for making – because we have a community of makers – a concentration of brilliant people who are excited to share their experience and their ideas, to teach you to use their tools and to learn what you know, too. On a much bigger scale, this is the same magic we hope for in creating SENSE.nano. As MIT.nano’s first ‘center of excellence,’ SENSE.nano will bring together a wide array of researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs fascinated by the potential of sensors and sensing systems to transform our world.

L. Rafael Reif, President, MIT President

Delivering the opening keynote talk, Analog Devices President Vincent Roche stated that the creation of innovative types of low-cost, connected, and wide-ranging sensing devices powered by nanoscale imaging and manufacturing systems can overcome most of the critical challenges encountered worldwide. New technology such as this “has the potential to solve problems that have plagued humanity for millennia, including food and water security, health care, and environmental degradation.”

Apart from doubling the clean-room imaging and fabrication space accessible to MIT researchers, the 200,000-square-foot facility also includes “one of the quietest spaces on the eastern seaboard,” stated Brian Anthony, a principal researcher in the mechanical engineering department and co-leader of the new center of excellence, while referring to the extraordinarily vibration-free surroundings constructed on the basement level of the new building. It is here that the most sensitive of instruments necessitating a highly stable base will be housed.

In order to demonstrate the nature of the cross-disciplinary study to be carried out in the new facility, many faculty members outlined their current study and described how its potentials and scope will be highly improved by using the new imaging and fabrication tools that will be accessible once the MIT.nano is officially open for performing research.

Tim Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, outlined the in-progress study involving him and his students, which is related to the development of inexpensive, tiny sensors that can be integrated in vegetables and fruits packaging. The sensors will have the ability to detect the accumulation of gases causing premature ripening or rotting, which will lead to considerable reduction in the amount of food wasted during storage and transportation. Polina Anikeeva, the Class of 1942 Career Development Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering, briefed on creating flexible, stretchable fibers for implantation into spinal cord and brain tissues, which will help in restoring motion to patients suffering from spinal cord injuries.

Other faculty members reported on large-area sensing systems including computation and logic such that only the most relevant data have to be transmitted, thus preventing data overload. They also briefed on sensors developed from nanotubes, with the ability to be bent, stretched, or twisted, while still gathering data. Yet other faculty members briefed on methods of combining electronics with photonic devices that use light in the place of electrons to transfer and manipulate data. A study related to the use of fluorescing quantum-dot particles to enable imaging of living tissues without making incisions was also presented at the conference. Another research was related to developing sensors with the ability to continuously monitor bridges, buildings, and other structures to detect indications of possible failure much ahead of a disaster.

As part of a panel discussion at the end of the conference, moderated by Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s “On Point,” MIT Professor Vladimir Bulovic, the faculty lead for the MIT.nano building and the Fariborz Maseeh Chair in Emerging Technology, stated that “The future will be measured in nanometers,” Bulovic further added that “We are right now at the renaissance age of nano.” He mentioned that all the devices around us (and also in our pockets) constantly sense, record, and at times transmit data related to our surroundings.

We can access data on how the world around us really functions, and with that data, we can take the next step of influencing the environment to enhance our health, protect our natural environment, and monitor our structures, buildings, and devices to ensure they are working optimally. The opportunity is vast.

Vladimir Bulovic, Professor, MIT

During his address, Reif also praised the capabilities of the so-called “ubiquitous sensing”: “Tomorrow’s optical, mechanical, electrical, chemical, and biological sensors, alone and networked together, offer a huge range of new possibilities in terms of understanding and controlling the world around us. Sensors will change how we protect our soldiers and keep our bridges safe. How we monitor the polar ice caps, and monitor how children learn. Sensors will change how we keep our water clean, our patients healthy, and our energy supply secure. ... In short, sensors and sensing systems will be the source of new products, new capabilities – and whole new industries. And we should not be surprised if some of them are deeply disruptive.”

Interference can certainly be a double-edged sword. Therefore, according to Reif, a difficulty faced by those who innovate in this area, “as technology races to the future, is how to help society navigate its unintended impacts. ... If we can make this a first concern, and not an afterthought, I have no doubt that this community will continue to be a major force in making a better world.”

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