NIST Fellow and Executive Advisor
National Institute of Standards and Technology
Semiconductor and Dimensional Metrology Division
Gaithersburg, Maryland, U.S.
- Ph.D., Physics, Harvard University
- M.S., Physics and Mathematics, University of Maryland
- A.B., Physics, Harvard College
Herbert Bennett, a NIST Fellow and Executive Advisor at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), formerly the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), in Gaithersburg, MD, has worked for many years in theoretical solid-state physics, measurements for the performance of electronics, magnetic, and optical materials and devices, and development of international standards for such materials and devices.
Any opinions expressed in the following are those of Dr. Bennett and not necessarily those of NIST nor of the organizations cited therein.
Advice to Students:
For high school students, the main thing is to excel in subjects that they enjoy. Hopefully, these subjects will include math and science as well as others that they may think have nothing to do with nanotechnology such as the basics of reading, writing, speaking, and developing the skills necessary to think analytically, be innovative, and to be effective team players.
Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Bennett: In the 1970s, colleagues at NBS worked on x-ray diffraction of ceramic powders that contained nanoparticles. In the late 1970s, as Director of the Materials Research Division (DMR) at the National Science Foundation, I oversaw the funding of materials research on metal and semiconductor nanoclusters for possible applications in catalysis and energy storage. In 1979, I collaborated with others to organize a workshop on micro-science and technology that included discussions about what we would call today nanotechnology.
Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?
Bennett: I am working on measurements and international standards to improve the performance (figures of merit) of nano-electronics that contributors to technology roadmaps, such as the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), consider high priorities. The standards are needed to compare accurately the results reported by different research groups and to make certain that buyers get what they expect from sellers; that is, to maintain fairness in the marketplace. Fairness in the market place requires standards so that products made by different companies and in different nations work well together. For example, nanotechnology stakeholders place considerable emphasis on standards and associated measurements to determine the reliability, durability, and compatibility of products.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Bennett: Working with nanotechnology is fun. Nanotechnology is very diverse. You are always learning about new science, engineering, and potential applications of nanotechnology for society. You have opportunities to give presentations to groups from which you would not have expected invitations. For example, last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked me to give a talk about what the world is doing in standards and measurements for nanotechnology. They’re very interested in standards for nanomedicine during all stages of economic activities – from research, innovation, clinical trials, manufacturing, commerce … to final disposal. Nanomedicine includes new methods, therapies, and medical devices with functions enabled by nanotechnologies to diagnose, monitor therapies, and perhaps cure diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. Nanotechnologies also offer possible ways to improve prosthetic implants such as those for hips and knees.
Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
Bennett: I serve on two committees that have made important progress in developing standards for measuring the electronic properties of nanodevices such as transistors made from carbon nanotubes. I was the U.S. representative on the nanotechnology advisory board of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). We recommended the creation of a technical committee on nano-electrotechnologies (TC113). I was the cofounder and chairman of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) to that international technical committee. Effective international standards are critical because they accelerate innovations and the transfer of research results from laboratories to manufacturing and commercialization. Nanotechnology standards also facilitate wider use of products that offer greater functionality or performance. Such standards also enhance the health and safety aspects of products for the protection of researchers, manufacturers, consumers and the environment.
The scope and breadth of experts on both TC 113 and the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to it represent the great diversity among nanotechnologies and their applications. Researchers, technology developers, those involved with international commerce, and other stakeholders in nano-electrotechnologies all depend on technically sound and valid standards and related measurements that are suitable for use in any nation.
Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?
Bennett: In one sense, nanotechnology is extremely old. The smoke from prehistoric fires contained nanoparticles of carbon. In addition to fires, there are many other sources of naturally-occurring nanomaterials. For example, nanomaterials exist in volcanic ash, ocean spray, mineral composites, and aerosols emitted by forests and coastal regions under the right climatic conditions. A more recent example is that artisans have for centuries used glazes containing nanoparticles of silver and copper on pottery to add luster. So, nanotechnology has a very long history that actually spans many centuries. All have had considerable impacts before the term “nano” became popular. In another sense, it’s too early to say. One needs more criteria by which to judge the impact of nanotechnology.
Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future.
Bennett: Advances in nanomedicine, healthcare, energy (such as solar cells with higher efficiencies and lower costs and batteries that weigh less and last longer), and clean water are examples. Some predict that the global nanomedicine market in 2016 will be about one-half of what the global semiconductor market was in 2010. Alternatives to today’s major sources of energy often require large amounts of water. Many do not realize that energy and water are not separable. Nanotechnologies will enable scientists and engineers to make significant advances in balancing the global needs for both energy and clean water.
Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Bennett: Much of my work, especially that having an international impact, occurs in a team situation. Because nanotechnology involves many different disciplines, its success requires teamwork. Nanotechnology roadmaps, measurements, and standards all involve teams – that is how you develop a consensus and increase the rate of progress.
Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?
Bennett: Well, that’s why I say nanotechnology is fun. In the programs and projects on which I work for NIST, I interact with people from many disciplines, not only scientists and engineers but also medical researchers, practicing physicians, regulators, industry leaders, economists, and lawyers.
Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Bennett: Yes. My university courses in physics, chemistry, math, engineering, and economics provided me with the necessary background to contribute to nanotechnologies. My Ph.D. thesis was on the theory of phase transitions in magnetic insulators and semiconductors. This theory explained how some insulators and semiconductors suddenly change their magnetic properties as the temperature increases. Today, this field is included in the emerging technology that many call spintronics or spin transport electronics. Scientists and engineers who work on spintronics use the spin, magnetic moment, and charge of the electron to make solid-state devices that perform better than conventional devices such as transistors and oscillators used in smartphones and tablets. Because these devices often have features at the nanoscale, spintronics is part of nanotechnology.
Q: Do you have a mentor? Did you in your college years?
Bennett: I had an advisor during the first two years in college and a thesis advisor in graduate school. When I was in school, the terms like mentor and mentoring were not part of the mainstream vocabulary.
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Bennett: Of course. Nanotechnology applications always involve physics and engineering and often medical sciences. These are areas to which I like to contribute and which are becoming more vital to the well-being of the world and society.
Q: If a high school or college student was interested in nanotechnology, what advice would you give them to help prepare take on those roles?
Bennett: For high school students, the main thing is to excel in subjects that they enjoy. Hopefully, these subjects will include math and science as well as others that they may think have nothing to do with nanotechnology such as the basics of reading, writing, speaking, and developing the skills necessary to think analytically, be innovative, and to be effective team players. The latter skills are needed to be successful members of teams working on nanotechnologies. Ask their teachers if there are any opportunities in their areas to talk to scientists and engineers working in nanotechnologies. For college students, find nanotechnology researchers working in areas that interest them and see if they can join a group, gain experience, and make contributions in some appropriate manner.