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Microchips, nerve work lead way

Though nanotechnology could revolutionize almost every industry, research currently getting the most attention is in such areas as semiconductor manufacturing, electronics and medicine. Here are two projects under way in Portland that illustrate the promise of nanotechnology:

• Scientists at Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science & Engineering are looking for ways to speed up the manufacturing process of tiny computer chips. The researchers are using a 'focused ion beam' machine to create patterns on the chips at an extremely small scale, resulting in fewer mistakes than allowed under older technologies.

'The computer control allows us to easily make pattern changes and modifications,' says Jack McCarthy, assistant professor in OGI's department of electrical and computer engineering. The project is funded with a one-year, $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

• Bruce Patton is a researcher at Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology. He studies nerve cells and the spaces between those cells, called synapses.

Patton's work is done at the nanoscale, or molecular, level. His research illustrates the way nanotechnology is being used to make discoveries in medicine and biology.

Patton and his fellow researchers have found a protein that helps nerve cells do their jobs. By studying that protein and how it works (at the nanoscale level) scientists could one day help amputees' artificial limbs respond the way natural limbs do.

'Nanotechnologists are looking for ways to apply their techniques, and people like me are challenging them with real-world problems to develop the technology in ways they never thought of,' Patton says.

Ñ Mary Bellotti