Nanobiotechnology is the convergence of state-of-the-art nanodevice engineering, which has emerged over the past two decades, with the molecular and cellular machinery of living systems, which has evolved over eons. Research in the life sciences now requires significant technological innovation to allow us to proceed from the era of genomics to new frontiers in proteomics. The stark contrast between these two thrusts is especially manifest for the case of PCR (polymerase chain reaction). Since there is no analogous generic technique allowing high volume amplification of just a few protein precursors, it is clear that new protocols and assays with few-to-single-molecule sensitivity are key. Approaches now emerging from nanoscience offer unprecedented promise in this domain.
Challenges of similar magnitude also emerge from systems biology—a new science that strives to understand, globally, the complex biochemical regulatory networks that underlie all life. As our purview expands through advances in biotechnology, the profound interconnectedness of these networks is becoming clear. Current research is providing a first draft of the "wiring diagrams" for such networks. However, these are hard won; at present they represent a series of "snapshots" of non-stationary processes. They are obtained from the extremely laborious protocols of genomics, ones generally precluding real-time analyses.
Furthermore, these snapshots represent "typical" responses, obtained from millions of cells that are not synchronized at similar points in their cell cycles. Emerging nanotechnology is poised to offer new tools for clarifying systems biology; it will enable studies at the level of the individual cell, at its own characteristic time scale. This will provide unprecedented opportunity to follow the sequential evolution of interdependent processes as they unfold.
Optoelectronic materials and devices provide the building blocks for rapidly developing optical communication technologies. In parallel with this technology-driven research, a new scientific era of mesophotonic materials has emerged in the last decade. These materials are based upon precision engineering of device geometry at scales comparable to, and smaller than, the wavelength of light. They result in new optical properties that have, in turn, spawned novel devices, including optically active waveguides, photonic bandgap mirrors, microlasers, and high-Q nanocavity resonators.
Within the KNI, future research efforts will explore the rich domain accessible through geometric control at the nanoscale—especially the areas of mesophotonic materials and photonic crystals. This research relies on new insights into light emission and concentration in nanostructures. This knowledge base will, in turn, enable the design, construction, and characterization of devices that are geometrically optimized for confinement and extraction of light. Chip-scale optics offer great potential for inexpensive telecommunication devices and high speed optical interconnects for data access in computing. Substantial progress has been made in these areas, but optical circuits that tap the full potential of light have remained elusive. In large part, this is because they must harness both spatial and spectral dimensions in ways that have never before been contemplated in electronics. This will, in turn, require extremely precise lithography and fabrication necessary to separate, manipulate, and multiplex individual wavelengths. With the state-of-the-art nanofabrication that will become possible within the KNI, we will be able to realize early prototypes of such integrated nanophotonic systems.
Large-Scale Integration of Nanosystems
From the examples above it becomes apparent that an important and overarching theme throughout our principal efforts is nanoscale systems integration. To date, the focus of nanoscientists worldwide has largely been upon the intriguing properties of individual nanoscale devices and structures. Research has elucidated how decreasing size affects the fundamental physics of such objects, and has yielded surprising observations and new intuition. This work continues in full force today, worldwide, in many corporate and academic research institutions—and is spawning a wealth of new engineering concepts based upon novel fundamental phenomena at the nanoscale. However our growing awareness is that the full potential of such nanotechnology can only be realized by integrating these advances into functional ensembles—that is nanosystems. This requires new tools and techniques that are not commonly found in a university research setting. We are engaged in building such capabilities within the KNI.