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Hubert Wins Lemelson Prize

Graduate Student Earns Award for Nanotechnology Work

By Nancy L. Keuss


Brian N. Hubert G has been named the recipient of the seventh annual Lemelson-MIT Program $30,000 Student Prize.

Hubert, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering, has developed the world’s first universal “pick-and-place” nano-assembly machine, able to lift and assemble nearly any type of material, several thousand atoms at a time.

Hubert hopes his nano-assembly process, the result of over 18 months of work, will someday have a significant effect on genetically-based medicine.

“The broad range of Brian’s endeavors was impressive to us. It’s rare to see someone who can write and play music like Mozart one day and invent devices that build on an atomic level the next. Brian is a true Renaissance man,” remarked Josh Tolkoff, chairperson of this year’s Student Prize judging panel.

“There’s an exciting application to ultra-dense gene chips,” Hubert notes. Segments of DNA strands placed on gene chips and patterned into these ultra-dense gene chips could “allow for a reading of the genome in minutes.” This, in turn, may aid doctors in detecting gene-related diseases well before an individual displays any symptoms.

A second invention presented at the ceremony was Hubert’s plastic memory chip, made out of aluminized plastic and designed in an effort to make computer chips cheaper by eliminating the need for silicon.

“Memory today can be quite expensive. We should look for ways to perhaps develop something better than the more expensive silicon water-based chip,” Hubert notes.

Hubert also invented a superconductor fabrication system, which was designed to boost the efficiency of manufacturing superconductor wires while lowering the cost required in building such wires.

Hubert already holds two patents -- one for the plastic memory chip, and another for the superconductor fabrication system.

Hubert became inventor in his youth

When asked what disappointments he has faced in the past, Hubert recalled a device that he thought up at a young age. The now-defunct invention idea involved placing a machine at the bottom of the ocean to convert the water pressure into electrical energy.

He remembers fondly his first invention, devised at the age of fourteen. Dubbed the ‘cheater meter,’ it was placed between the car and the gas pump nozzle and measured the true amount of gas entering a car.

“It seemed cars were not getting the full amount of gas paid for, so I would measure the gasoline going into the car.” Hubert also remembers sitting outside his house with cups full of gasoline and analyzing the various grades of gas after exposing the containers to sunlight.

Hubert feels that inventors have a particularly unique perspective on the world. “Instead of passively accepting the way things are, inventors look at a situation differently,” he said. “They say, ‘I can make a real contribution here.’ When an inventor stubs his toe, he not only says ‘ow,’ but asks, ‘How did this happen?’”

During the ceremony, Hubert thanked many people for their continued support, among them Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences Joseph Jacobson of the Media Laboratory, under whom Hubert has conducted his doctoral research.

“Jacobson set up a free-flowing environment in his group, such that we were exposed to everything from biology to electronics to nanotechnology,” Hubert said.

The $30,000 in prize money will go towards the formation of a commercial venture dedicated to exploring how to fabricate things at nano-scale resolutions.

Hubert, meanwhile, plans to wrap up his nano-assembly project and to look at the possibility of converting the device into something that can build a vertically-oriented 3-D object, possibly realizing the dream of nanorobotics.

Award created in 1994

Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife Dorothy established the Lemelson-MIT awards program in 1994 to recognize and reward outstanding inventors and innovators within the MIT student body in the hope of encouraging more young people to pursue careers in science, engineering, technology, and entrepreneurship.

The judging panel responsible for selecting the winner consists of MIT alumni including successful scientists, technologists, and entrepreneurs.

Lemelson-MIT Program winners have continued to make significant contributions in their fields of study.

Last year’s Student Prize winner was Amy B. Smith, whose inventions include a laboratory incubator that runs without electricity and a hammer mill to grind grain into flour, both devices intended to improve way of life in Third World countries.

Smith has spent the past year doing research in Nepal, and has worked to develop water quality treatment and testing kits for developing countries.

Hubert also skilled pianist

Hubert is not only an accomplished inventor but also a gifted pianist, having composed and performed more than 22 original works. Apart from his musical talent, Hubert is also skilled in the area of architectural design and modeling.

Also present at the Thursday ceremony was Hubert’s father, who spoke of his son’s “tremendous powers of concentration.” This skill may be best illustrated by a childhood holiday music recital. Only eight years old at the time, Hubert was playing a piano version of “O Holy Night” when a girl behind him knocked over her xylophone, creating a loud disturbance.

“Brian kept playing,” Mr. Hubert said. “He never missed a note.”