Robert J Celotta, Director, US National Institute for Standards and Technology’s Centre for Nanoscale Science and Technology


With applications across so many sectors, nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionise life as we know it. Robert J Celotta, Director of the US National Institute for Standards and Technology’s CNST, reveals how this unique user facility attracts researchers like no other


To begin, could you give a broad overview of the CNST? What role does it play within the US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST)?

NIST is the US national measurement laboratory, more formally referred to as a ‘national metrology institute’. As such, it maintains the units of measurement and develops and extends a wide variety of measurement methods to provide an enabling infrastructure for US science and technology. In 2010, NIST reorganised its laboratory functions into six major research units. Four specialise in physical measurement, material measurement, engineering and IT. The remaining two – CNST and the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) – operate very differently. These organisations are user facilities with a mission to provide ready access to instrumentation and methods that might not be available elsewhere because of their complexity or expense. The CNST was specially designed to help further the rapidly emerging nanotechnology enterprise.

What is the mission of the CNST and how is this being carried out?

Basically, we do two things: operate a large-scale facility that provides easy access to state-of-the-art, commercial nanoscale fabrication and measurement tools; and perform research to advance nanotechnology measurement and fabrication methods beyond the state of the art. The first task is carried out at the CNST NanoFab, which provides à la carte access to a comprehensive collection of major tools for nanofabrication and measurement. Because of the way it is structured, researchers can use major, well-maintained tools, receive training if needed, and benefit from professionally-developed and maintained fabrication processes. The fact that we provide rapid access, professional assistance, and a way for users to maintain their intellectual property rights makes the NanoFab particularly popular with industry, ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 corporations.

Which areas of research are currently being focused on at the CNST?

Within the NanoFab, we have approximately 500 active projects per year across a broad range of topics, ranging from nanoelectronics to nanomanufacturing, energy storage, bionanotechnology and healthcare applications, including single-electron silicon transistors, nanotextured films for low-friction machine parts, nanostructured films for next generation batteries, and custom-shaped nanoparticles for treating cancer. The projects are driven by our users and reflect the breadth of development in the field.

The second part of our mission – developing measurement and fabrication solutions that go beyond the current commercial state of the art – is also driven by user needs, but at a longer term and more strategic level. At the moment, most of our efforts are focused in three technical areas – future electronics, nanomanufacturing and nanofabrication, and energy – but nanotechnology is a very young and dynamic discipline. As the field is evolving so rapidly, we are organised in a way that ensures maximum agility. Our basic ‘organisational unit’ of research consists of a project leader and two postdoctoral researchers, supplemented with substantial technical support services. We quite deliberately do not grow large research groups: to get substantial research done, project leaders, by design, need to collaborate. Currently, we welcome a new postdoctoral researcher about every two to three weeks. This dynamic staffing model allows us to continually bring the best new ideas from across the world into a highly collaborative environment supported by excellent facilities.

Our approach has created an intellectually stimulating, highly productive and very popular environment for nanotechnology research. This year over 1,500 research participants directly benefited from CNST’s research, either through NanoFab projects or collaboration with our research project leaders.

What role does your work have with regard to shaping policy and commercial activities?

NIST functions more as an enabler or facilitator than an agency-shaping policy or directing commercial activities. We respond to the needs of science and industry and solve measurement problems that are encumbering the development of new technologies for the general benefit of the US population and economy. NIST has no regulatory functions and does not set standards. We may perform the underlying research that informs regulatory agencies and standard-setting bodies, and may put forward knowledgeable participants for standard-setting committees, but we neither set nor enforce regulations or standards. One positive effect of our role in these processes is that companies and others view us as an honest broker; they thus actively and enthusiastically collaborate in our work. As a testament of this, NIST has approximately 2,900 staff members and a similar number of guest researchers working side-by-side in our labs.

Could you summaries the CNST’s Energy Storage, Transport and Conversion programmers? What does it set out to achieve?

A great many emerging energy technologies involve nanotechnology at a critical stage in the process. The operation of lithium ion batteries depends on several processes that take place at the nanoscale, as does the conversion of light into electricity in photocells. We work on making extremely sensitive measurement methods and systems to specifically probe the nanoscale structure and operation of energy-related devices. We also find ways to fabricate nanostructures to test our measurements and the prevailing theories of how energy-related devices operate. For example, we recently created a nanoscale-sized version of a lithium ion battery. This device allowed us to directly observe what happens to the position of the lithium ions and the structure of the battery at the nanoscale during charging and discharging.

Future Electronics forms one of the key research areas at the CNST. In what ways are researchers at the CNST supporting the continued growth of the electronics industry?

The electronics industry can rightfully claim to have been active in nanotechnology well before it became a ‘hot’ research area. The industry’s productivity and profit depended on producing more and smaller circuits with each generation of circuitry. Currently, concerns about heating have limited the speed of future computer chips and eventually we will run out of ‘small’ when shrinking becomes limited by the granularity of matter and significant interference from emerging nanoscale phenomena. The electronics industry is therefore exploring the feasibility of developing a new ‘switch’ based on an as yet undetermined nanoscale process. We have been working closely with the joint industry/government-supported US Nanoelectronics Research Initiative to develop characterisation and fabrication techniques to support these new technologies. Much of our work has concentrated on the use of grapheme in future devices. For example, in one of our more extensive programmes, we have developed advanced scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) methods to characterise the local electronic structure of grapheme and correlate it with defects formed during fabrication.

To what extent does the CNST encourage collaboration between researchers?

There are generally two reasons to have a nano centre. First there is the necessity of finding a way to share the cost of expensive tools; we do that through the NanoFab. Second, you need multidisciplinary staff. I believe that to advance nanotechnology as efficiently as possible, you need the active participation of – and collaboration between – researchers who are deeply trained in diverse disciplines. We therefore encourage the creation of multidisciplinary teams through our staffing choices and emphasis on collaborative projects. All current projects involving CNST researchers are collaborations that were formed from the bottom up.

Since its inception, what do you believe to be the CNST’s greatest achievement? How would you like to build upon this in the future?

CNST started just over five years ago with a small number of NIST staff members and has since added about 80 per cent of its current workforce. During this long development process there have been several noteworthy research accomplishments, one being our research activities on grapheme as an electronic material. Aside from 30 grapheme-related publications – many of which have been in high profile journals – three graduate students from a collaborating university research team received PhDs while conducting these experiments, a couple of commercial products were born, and one post doc transferred this knowledge by accepting a position at a major semiconductor manufacturer.

However, I would have to say that looking back the greatest achievement may prove to be having created a unique nano centre, one that can attract talented researchers from industry, academia and government, and nurture ideas and make them a reality.

For the immediate future, I expect to see growth in our activities in nanobiotechnology, nanomedicine, nano manufacturing and in providing services to users in remote locations.

What role does the CNST play in nurturing tomorrow’s top talents?

One thing we never imagined when planning the creation of the CNST was that there would be an appreciable number of students about. But, as we should have realised, students have a great deal of interest in – and enthusiasm for – nanotechnology. It certainly has the ‘gee-whiz’ factor and it also provides opportunities to work on projects with clear societal benefits. So, it should not have been surprising that our summer student internships would prove to be highly in demand or that summer students would ask to come back for a second summer or even to arrange to spend a semester here during their studies. I don’t think, however, I could ever have anticipated how incredibly talented, knowledgeable, and motivated many of the students would be, starting at the high school level! Of course, as any teacher knows, students bring a vitality and excitement to everything they touch. We are benefiting every bit as much from having them here as they are benefiting from the experience.