Big Award for Tiny Research
Physics Professor David McIlroy Recognized with Idaho NSF EPSCoR Award for Work with Nanomaterials
By Tara Roberts
David McIlroy’s dedication to nanotechnology has opened doors for research at the University of Idaho and across the state.
In recognition of these efforts, McIlroy, a UI professor of physics, has won the Jean'ne M. Shreeve NSF EPSCoR Research Excellence Award.
Idaho’s National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, known as NSF EPSCoR, selects one researcher from UI, Boise State University or Idaho State University each year to receive this prestigious award, which is named for longtime UI chemist and former EPSCoR director Jean’ne Shreeve.
McIlroy discovered nanosprings, coils of silica that are about 200 nanometers thick – about 500 times thinner than a human hair. In conjunction with this work, he’s been a champion of nanoscience research across campuses and disciplines in Idaho.
“We recognized very early on that there was an opportunity to get a foothold in the field of nanoscience and nanomaterials,” he says.
NSF EPSCoR grants from 2002-2008 aimed to strengthen nanotechnology research in Idaho and helped McIlroy develop his nanospring research and secure a major grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation – the first in Idaho – to take nanosprings worldwide.
“It allowed us to take what was a scientific, lab-scale concept and transform it into a technology-scale project,” McIlroy says. “We could make enough of the stuff to supply it to people outside the university and in industry.”
EPSCoR State Committee Chairman Laird Noh says McIlroy earned the Shreeve award due to his high standards of excellence of himself and the students he has mentored, as well as his work ethic.
“He worked hard, published much and broke new scientific ground, nationally and internationally,” Noh says. “He demonstrated, for the first time, the ability to grow materials where both the material itself and the morphology can be controlled on the nanoscale. And he took risks to move his discoveries into the marketplace.”
Researchers around the world now are experimenting with marketable uses for nanosprings. Unlike many nanomaterials, nanosprings are easy to make in large quantities and at a reasonable cost.
The technology has been licensed to companies including MJ3 industries, a veterinary prosthetics company led by McIlroy’s former student Jamie Hass. UI ships nanosprings to companies in the U.S., Asia and Canada for distribution to researchers around the world.
“We’re the only ones in the world who know how to make nanosprings of this kind,” McIlroy says. “Developing opportunities will eventually, hopefully, lead to licensing of the technology by some of these well-to-do companies.”
Researchers at UI and other Idaho institutions are studying uses for nanosprings, including in biofuels production, composite materials, fuel cells and to support catalysts for research in chemistry.
“It’s touching a lot of different places and a lot of different applications,” McIlroy says.
The research also involves UI’s undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom have been trained to make nanosprings and participated in related research. Being involved in nano-related research is valuable for both students and the university as they head into the future, McIlroy says.
“As we develop these things, it’s important to have a footprint in the landscape of nano, because down the road it could end up being very, very big. You get a lot of mileage from excellent discoveries – maybe not right now, but down the road.”