Nanotechnology Network Meets National and Research Triangle Research and Educational Needs

8/24/20 Pratt School of Engineering

Renewal grant ties Duke together with Triangle universities to help researchers, businesses and educators pursue nanotechnology innovation

RTNN logo
Nanotechnology Network Meets National and Research Triangle Research and Educational Needs

Duke University has been renewed for five years as part of the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network (RTNN), part of National Science Foundation-funded National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure, a United States network to help researchers, businesses and educators pursue nanotechnology innovation.

The Research Triangle of North Carolina is home to some of the most highly ranked educational institutions in the country in science and technology. Duke, North Carolina State University (NCSU), and the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) have teamed to form the RTNN to foster a technology ecosystem that has benefited the three research universities, a dynamic local tech startup climate, large established technology companies, one of the largest community college systems in the nation and the local K-12 educational system.

Led by NCSU, the RTNN excelled in this mission in the first five years of NSF funding, and has been renewed by the NSF for another $5.5 million grant over five years to serve the Triangle and the nation by providing unprecedented access to nanotechnology facilities, expertise and educational opportunities for all users. It is being funded by the NSF National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI), which has enabled major discoveries, innovations and contributions to education and commerce by providing researchers from academia, small and large companies, and government with open access to university user facilities.

“The renewal award reinforces the sustained high quality and impact of the nanotechnology facilities, research and educational programs in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina,” said Jacob Jones, distinguished professor of materials science and engineering at NCSU and director and principal investigator of the RTNN. “It is important to our universities because it allows us to continue supporting exciting nanotechnology programs that serve both local and national interests.”

In the first five years of funding, the RTNN has been a national focal point for enabling innovative nanoscience and nanotechnology research, discovery, workforce development, and education through

  1. open access to an evolving and integrated suite of cutting-edge fabrication and characterization facilities,
  2. engagement of faculty and user populations with diverse research expertise to support the development of new processes, tools and instrumentation, and
  3. innovative training programs, outreach and meetings/workshops to reach and educate new user populations. The RTNN currently reaches more than10,000 people per year through a variety of nanotechnology educational and outreach programs, particularly focusing on under-served populations in STEM. 

Researchers wearing white suits in a white room

“This program has brought national acclaim and nanotechnology resources to our region,” said Nan Jokerst, the J. A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and executive director of the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility at Duke. “We’ve engaged in multiple innovative approaches with this program in the first five years, and we are tremendously pleased to continue our work with the renewal of this highly competitive grant.”

Duke has a wide array of powerful tools that can help advance innovations from concept to prototype and, ultimately, through manufacturing for the marketplace.

The Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) is an interdisciplinary, shared resource providing access to advanced materials characterization and fabrication capabilities. Among other instruments, it is home to the MicroCT scanner, which uses x-rays to create 3D models of objects slice-by-slice, a state-of-the-art cleanroom for nanotechnology research, and a Krios cryo-TEM for imaging biological single particles.

The RTNN renewal is based upon innovative, nationally leading programs that enable research and education, and engage new users. The RTNN programs include Kickstarter, which funded 75 projects for over 1,300 hours of free RTNN facility access. This free access enabled awardees to gain preliminary research results that enabled over 38% of them to return to RTNN facilities and subsequently spend over $133,000 in the facilities. 

Another nationally leading program developed by the RTNN is the online Coursera course “Nanotechnology, A Maker’s Course,” hosted by Duke, which launched in September 2017. Highlighting diverse students demonstrating the use of nanotechnology equipment in RTNN facilities, the course gives students a sense of the nanotechnology tools and capabilities, and raises awareness of RTNN facilities and how to access them.  To date, over 120,000 people have visited the course website, over 20,000 students have engaged with the course, and over 5,000 have completed all course components, with students from more than 150 countries.

The RTNN also stands out in local outreach. In the first five years of the program, RTNN staff have traveled to many K-12 classrooms and hosted students in the RTNN labs, interacting with almost 2,000 students, with over 60% of those students from under-represented groups in STEM.

Between Duke, NCSU and UNC-CH, the RTNN has a suite of facilities that enable the next generation of technology innovation. These facilities have capacities including nanofabrication of electronics, textiles fabrication and characterization, sophisticated materials characterization, and labs that evaluate interactions between nanotechnologies and the environment. Through the RTNN partnership, an ecosystem of both technology and educational innovation has been created and fostered, spreading throughout the Research Triangle region, to the State of North Carolina, and to the nation.

For more information or to explore the resources available in the region, visit