Sep 6, 2005
How to get up close to nanotech
In a special wing of a new six-storey building at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, researchers will soon be able to use the “quietest” laboratories in Canada. The labs, which open early next year, are specially engineered so that mechanical vibrations, acoustic noise and electromagnetic interference will be as small as possible. Forming part of the new home for Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology, the facilities will let researchers create and study nanoscale structures with exquisite precision.
But what is also interesting about the institute, which will occupy most of the new C$60m (about €40m) building in Edmonton, is that it will be hiring more than 120 researchers and technical staff over the next two years, bringing the total to over 200. Shannon Jones, the institute’s communications adviser, says that recruitment will start to ramp up over the next three to four months. Roughly a quarter of new staff will be physicists and physical chemists, most of whom will work in electron microscopy and molecular electronics.
Researchers at the institute will have access to some C$40m worth of state-of-theart equipment, including the first-ever microscope that can characterize nano-scale materials using both electron interferometry and electron energy-loss spectroscopy at the same time. The lab will also have a transmission electron microscope that can take 3D images of proteins, membranes and other “soft” materials, as well as two scanning tunnelling microscopes, two X-ray diffractometers and several atomic force microscopes. “For people who use microscopy, the new equipment will be a big draw,” says Jones.
Move on down
The money that is being spent in Edmonton is one sign of the growing emphasis on nanotechnology at universities worldwide. Perhaps because anything with “nano” in the title is more likely to win research funding, recent years have seen new labs with grandiose names at the UK universities of Birmingham (the Interdisciplinary Innovation Centre for Nanotechnology), Newcastle (the Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology) and Swansea (the Multidisciplinary Nanotechnology Centre).
Bristol University, UK, is also about to start building a £9.2m four-storey Nanoscience and Quantum Information Centre, which is scheduled to open in spring 2007. The basement will contain 12 labs, where researchers will be able to create and characterize new nano-scale materials. Like the facility in Alberta, the Bristol lab is being designed so that acoustic, mechanical and electromagnetic vibrations are minimized. Indeed, Mervyn Miles, a Bristol physicist who is helping to set the centre up, says that it will be “possibly the quietest experimental space in the world”.
The centre will have space for up to 40 staff, most of whom will visit for short periods to take advantage of the lab’s facilities. Architects have designed the building so that it encourages interdisciplinary interaction, which is the name of the game in nanotechnology. According to Miles, many of the world’s leading scientists are already queuing up to spend time in “what will be a highly stimulating atmosphere with a real buzz”.
Elsewhere in Europe, there are well-known labs at the Technical University of Eindhoven (the Center for NanoMaterials), the University of Twente (the MESA+ institute for nanotechnology) and the University of Munich (Center for Nanoscience). In the US, meanwhile, the National Science Foundation (NSF) last year announced plans to spend $69m (about €55m) on six new centres for nanoscience and engineering at Berkeley, Northeastern, Ohio State, Pennsylvania, Stanford and Wisconsin universities, as part of its annual $250m investment in nanotechnology. The NSF cash is just part of an even bigger National Nanotechnology Initiative, for which President Bush has requested a budget of $1054m in fiscal year 2006.
A degree of expertise
So with all that new money rolling in, what is the best way for young physicists to get a slice of the action? Nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary field in which electronics, physics, chemistry, biology and materials science are used to create new materials and devices that have features that are roughly 1–100 nm in size. Newcomers therefore need to appreciate that there is more to life than just physics, and that collaborating with scientists from other disciplines cannot be avoided.
“You have to know some chemistry and you have to know some biology,” says Richard Jones, a polymer physicist from the University of Sheffield and author of Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life. “You need the language and ability to be able to communicate with, say, polymer chemists, cell biologists or tissue engineers. It’s a question of broadening the skills you gained on your physics degree.”
One way of doing this is to take a taught master’s course, which is likely to last a year. New degrees are proliferating all the time, but because nanotechnology is a developing field – with no fixed body of knowledge – each degree has its own flavour (see Nanotechnology courses). So while the course at the University of Wales, Bangor, emphasizes microfabrication, Newcastle’s degree focuses on biomedical aspects of the subject. Cambridge University offers a master’s degree in nanotechnology and enterprise, while Imperial College has an MRes degree, which is mostly researchbased with only a small taught component.
One all-round taught course is the MSc in nanoscale science and technology that is jointly run by the universities of Sheffield and Leeds. In addition to covering polymers, colloids and other soft materials that form nano-scale structures through self-assembly, the course also teaches students about “hard” materials like inorganic semiconductors and nanomagnets, in which nanostructures are created by etching and milling bulk solids. Course director Robert Kelsall from the University of Leeds believes the that MSc, launched in 2001, was Europe’s first postgraduate nanotechnology degree.
“The MSc acts as a conversion course, opening up fields for students that they couldn’t do otherwise,” says Kelsall. “Many students find it a very useful stepping stone to a PhD, while others go into industry. The beauty is that it exposes students to a range of disciplines and forces them to think about scientific ideas from not just a physics point of view. Nanotechnology is more than just about science at a particular length scale, it refers to a field in which many different disciplines overlap.”
About the author
Matin Durrani is deputy editor of Physics World magazine.