An $18.5 million grant will fund UNM student efforts to make cellphone parts in larger quantities and at a lower cost.

The National Science Foundation grant created the Nanomanufacturing Systems for Mobile Computing and Mobile Energy Technologies at the University of Texas at Austin. UNM professor Olga Lavrova said UT subcontracted UNM and the University of California, Berkeley to work on the project. UNM Center for High Technology Materials director Steven Brueck will lead UNM’s participation in the program.

Brueck said the focus of the project is manufacturing parts for cellphone computing, such as memory and processing chips, more efficiently and that the task is difficult because the pieces are very small. He said the parts and materials the group will work with will be as small as 20 nanometers, which he said is the equivalent of 40 atoms; just a fraction of a cross-section of a single hair.

“We will have more computing capability,” he said. “But they are getting harder and harder to manufacture.”

Brueck said students will work to perfect cheaper and more efficient ways to produce parts necessary for cellphone computing.

He said that rather than process a single chip at a time, students aim to work on a process that would make hundreds of chips at a time on a large sheet, similar to the way a newspaper is printed.

He said that although the project will cut production costs, it also presents some difficulties because if the chips are made on a sheet that is processed through a machine, there’s more room for error, especially if the sheet stretches. He said that if even one transistor is slightly out of place, the chip is useless.

Lavrova, who is in charge of creating nano-models, said the project also aims to improve cellphone battery life and find new manufacturing materials.

“Some of the new materials for these batteries are just being created right now,” she said. “But not everybody understands how they work, so we need better models.”

Lavrova said CHTM’s vast resources, such as advanced microscopes that can show things on an atomic scale, are what made UNM stand out from other universities that could have worked on the project.

“CHTM owns several of those,” she said. “That’s one of the selection criteria of why universities get to work on this or that project. They can’t say, ‘Oh, we’ll look at it through a magnifying glass.’”

The bulk of work on the project will begin in January 2013, but Lavrova said students have already begun researching.

Brueck said it is important for science students at any level to get opportunities to work on real-world research projects. He said the best way for students to learn is to have access to hands-on projects.

“The idea is to get students used to the way they’re going to be working once they get into industry — learning by doing,” he said.