Valley Technical College has teamed up with
UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and several other tech
colleges to create the first Nanoscience Technology
degree program in the state.
Nanotechnology deals with particles one nanometer,
or one-billionth of a meter, wide, where normal
physical properties of matter begin to give way
to quantum mechanical behavior that physicists
still do not fully understand. The potential of
arranging nanoparticles, which scientists long
have hoped would one day open the door to super-strength
building materials and super-efficient electrical
conductors, now is giving way to reality – for instance, the 2004 Chevrolet Impala's
side body moldings incorporated what is termed a nano-enabled composite material.
The 28 students in the program just completed their first semester of work. Students
completing the two-year associate's degree program do three semesters at CVTC
and finish up with a final term at the University of Minnesota. The college partnered
with Dakota County Technical College, Rosemount, Minn., to develop the program's
curriculum. Studying the basics of quantum theory and atomic properties, students
go on in the first semester to study some of the basic tools of nanotechnology,
including scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) and scanning probe microscopes
Prof. Hans Mikelson, instructor for the nanoscience technology program, said
one of the biggest opportunities awaiting program graduates is within the nanoparticle
manufacturing industry at companies such as 3M. In addition, microelectronics
and the transistors that drive them are shrinking to the point that they, too,
are approaching the nano scale, he noted. To support his students' study for
those and other possible applications, Mikelson just recently had purchase orders
approved for an SPM and an SEM for the program, together which cost about $220,000 – a
small investment compared to what nanotechnology could mean for the health of
the Chippewa Valley's workforce and business community in the near future.
Jack Uldrich, chairman of Minneapolis-based consultancy NanoVeritas
Group and co-author of "The Next Big Thing is Really Small (Crown Business,
2003)," a book on nanotechnology's future impact on business, advised CVTC on
the nanoscience program and noted that while trying to draw nano-related businesses
to the Chippewa Valley might be a bit premature, developing a workforce to support
it certainly is not.
"I think what will happen in the near future is, because CVTC is one of just
a few programs graduating students, businesses will start coming to the area,
because there's such a shortage of workers," Uldrich said.
CVTC President Bill Ihlenfeldt said in studying the nanotechnology activity going
on with Boston Scientific and 3M in the area dominant economic engine, the Twin
Cities, as well as the economic development efforts of the Chippewa Valley, it
seemed desirable for CVTC to explore not only a nanotechnology-related degree
program but also look at how to develop nanotechnology-related industries in
the valley to diversify its base.
"This is a growing industry, and an industry that does not totally employ Ph.D.-level
people," Ihlenfeldt said. [However,] eighty percent of the jobs require at least
a two-year degree, people who know how to operate in this environment, people
who understand the technology."
The nanoscience program is far from the only such enterprise CVTC is working
on. For starters, this summer, the college will be remodeling part of the Gateway
Manufacturing and Technology Center to create a science lab specifically for
the nanoscience technology program and adding a class-100 clean room. Ihlenfeldt
hopes to have both projects completed by the end of the summer.
However, the real kick comes in the third stage of this venture, which will take
the form of the NanoRite innovation and incubation center for nanotechnology
industries, an $11.5 million project. The college received an initial federal
grant of $100,000 for NanoRite; it has raised $2 million locally and currently
has a grant proposal in the government's hands to fund the rest. The project's
budget calls for $4.5 million for facilities and $5.5 million for equipment.
Plans call for a facility up to 60,000 square feet to stand adjacent the Gateway
Center that also will house representatives of the Department of Commerce, Forward
Wisconsin, Momentum Chippewa Valley, and possibly other agencies.
"We will have not only the incubation space, but we will have the wherewithal
in all the ancillary types of services; and then we'll have our instructional
program tied to it," Ihlenfeldt said. "The hope is in this go-round with the
federal government that we'll get enough money to actually begin construction
on NanoRite in the very near future."
In addition, plans call for a micro-fabrication facility within the NanoRite
space to train people for the types of miniature-scale manufacturing required
for the medical device industry, which also is teeming in the Twin Cities at
Medtronic, Guidant Corp. and other companies. The hope is to retrain the bevy
of machine tool-proficient workers that CVTC has graduated over the years for
the cutting-edge industries that already are dominating more of the business
landscape in the region.
"We are trying to attract the medical device industry," Ihlenfeldt said. "We've
put out a ton of machine tool people in this region, and they need to know how
to operate in an environment where you have spindle speeds up to 40,000 RPM,
working with a product that you really can't see, and if you touch it, becomes
scrap. We will have a certificate that will give them the wherewithal to work
in that industry."
Lincoln Brunner is a WTN contributing editor and can be reached at email@example.com .