CORVALLIS - Researchers from Oregon State University and Portland State University who are affiliated with the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute have been awarded a $1.3 million, four-year grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a biological process for producing nanostructured semiconductor materials using single-celled marine organisms called diatoms.

The award represents a major step forward for ONAMI, Oregon's first signature research center, whose collaborative structure has been touted as an effective means of attracting research funding to the state that will ultimately lead to the development of new products and companies.

"This is great news for OSU, PSU, ONAMI, and the state of Oregon," said Skip Rung, director of ONAMI. "This is an excellent example of what can happen when our state's top researchers team up and collaborate. We become stronger than the sum of our parts, and the results are powerful."

Gregory Rorrer, the lead investigator and OSU chemical engineering professor, brings biochemical engineering expertise to the project. Rorrer's lab will develop the biological process technology needed to coax the marine diatoms into making nanoscale semiconductor materials based on silicon, germanium, and titanium.

"This research is significant because a biological process is being used to make nanoscale inorganic materials that may possess novel optical and electronic properties with many high-tech applications," Rorrer said.

Using current technology, nanostructured semiconductor materials are "extremely difficult and very expensive to manufacture," Rorrer said. Employing a biological system to produce the materials holds hope for a faster, more efficient and less expensive way to produce the materials, which are used in optoelectronics, photonics, thin film displays, solar cells and a wide range of electronic devices.

Co-investigators are PSU physics professor Jun Jiao, who is also the director of Electron Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility at PSU, and OSU chemical engineering professor Chih-hung (Alex) Chang. Chang's lab will contribute research in helping determine the novel semiconductor properties, and Jiao's lab at PSU will perform nano imaging and analysis of the materials.

"PSU and Jun Jiao bring a unique capability in nano imaging and nanomaterials analysis to the project," said Rorrer. "The award would not have happened without this high level of interdisciplinary collaboration."

That collaborative participation, officials say, is what ONAMI is all about.

"This grant is proof positive that state support of ONAMI is already beginning to pay dividends," Rung said. The Oregon legislature allocated $21 million in support for ONAMI-related construction projects at OSU, PSU, and UO during its last legislative session.

"Another very important aspect of this collaborative project is that all students involved will be able to interact with each other on a routine basis, helping them learn new things that their own group cannot offer," Jiao said. "I am confident that through seamless collaboration by faculty with different areas of expertise, many externally funded research projects such as this one will be generated within the ONAMI effort."

ONAMI is a collaboration between OSU, PSU, the University of Oregon, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the state of Oregon and private industry partners. The grant was awarded through NSF's Bioengineering and Environmental Systems Division, a part of the Engineering Directorate and the Nanoscience and Engineering Program.