Plenary speaker: Dave Blank (photo: Eric Brinkhorst, COMS 2013)
Plenary speaker: Dave Blank (photo: Eric Brinkhorst, COMS 2013)

This year's event took place at the University of Twente, home to the MESA+ institute for nanotechnogy, and its scientific director, Dave Blank, opened the session on day one with an overview of the Dutch landscape in nanotechnology. Here, the University of Twente is a key player thanks to the contributions of MESA+ and its cleanroom facility, NanoLab, and sister site BioNanoLab, which are tailor-made for translating materials research into prototype devices. Nearby are the recently opened High Tech Factory, which enables spin-offs to ramp up production volumes, and Kennispark Twente - the region's innovation campus.

Core principles

As the audience was to find out, there is nothing accidental about Twente's success in this area. Since its founding in the 1960’s, the university has been on a mission to boost the region's economy, which at that time was suffering due to a declining textile industry, and has strong entrepreneurial roots. "The commercialization of scientific results is a key policy here," explained Blank. "MESA+ now has more than 50 spin offs."

One such company is Solmates, which is developing pulsed laser deposition equipment that can accommodate a broad range of substrates and thin-film materials to serve numerous applications. Areas currently being explored include energy-harvesting devices for self-powered sensors and structures to upgrade solid-oxide fuel cells.

Other local success stories include MicroNit (micro-fluidics and lab-on-a-chip devices), Blue4Green (point-of-care testing), medspray (nozzle micro- and nanofabrication) and Ostendum (optical detection).

Joining the dots

Research facilities that bring industry and academia together are a key piece of the micro- and nanotechnology innovation puzzle, as developments in process know-how benefit multiple projects and push equipment to new highs, attracting more users.

And it's not just the Netherlands that's applying these principles. Other examples mentioned at this year's COMS event include Centri in Portugal, Finland's Micronova, the Karlsruhe Nano Micro Facility in Germany, and NorFab, which is based in Trondheim, Norway. This list also includes networked organizations such as the Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility in the US that offers services to academia and industry through a partnership of 14 universities.

With 35 years of experience behind it, the Cornell operation is fully geared up for collaboration. "If you get your paperwork in by Thursday, you can start on the Monday," explained Don Tennant, director of operations, in Tuesday's plenary session.

The concept of an "open laboratory" that welcomes industry and academia was echoed by Don Birx who presented Penn State University's approach to creating an environment for new product development. At the university's Erie campus, engineering and business schools are co-located so that innovation and commercialization go hand-in-hand. The setup makes sure that entrepreneurial skills are high on the list of teaching priorities and prepares students for moving ideas from the lab into the market.

The closure of many industrial research and development laboratories has given universities room to expand their innovation strategy, open up facilities and reach out to companies. Sometimes firms choose to form partnerships with academic institutions and set up joint centres to share costs and expertise.

IBM re-affirmed its long-time links with ETH Zurich by building a new nanotechnology centre. The collaborative facility opened in 2011 and is named after Nobel Prize winners Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binnig. As centre manager, Roland Germann, explained to the audience, IBM has gone to great lengths in the design of the building to create "noise free labs" that make use of damping architectures, Faraday cages, specialist wall-cladding and finely-tuned temperature control to squeeze the most out of equipment such as e-beam tools. Research topics that are currently of interest include carbon-based devices and tools for coating 3D nanostructures.

Nano and food

Despite enjoying a generous buffet of sandwiches, COMS attendees were still thinking about food after lunch on day two as the conference programme examined micronano solutions for the food industry. Helge Bergslien of Norway's food centre of excellence emphasised that the key word for the consumer here is trust.

Research highlights in the session included work using polyphenols, found in green tea and wine, and cellulose to deliver surfactant-free emulsions and impart controlled-release properties. Although, as we were to discover, the biggest benefits of nano- and its related technologies to the food industry might not be in product formulation, but in advances in measurement and quality assurance.

Key enablers here include:

•  millimetre waves
The characteristic signature of water when probed using millimetre waves can be used to track drying and freezing processes more efficiently.

•  surface plasmon resonance (SPR)
Fibre-based SPR chips are being developed as bio-sensors for allegens to monitor for cross-contamination when switching production. For example, between milk and dark chocolate processing.

•  hyperspectral imaging
Hyperspectral imaging, which combines digital imaging with spectroscopy, can be used to reveal hidden bruising in fruit and vegetables, as well as evaluate fat and lean portions in meat, and check for pieces of rubber or metal in food mixtures.

•  Raman spectroscopy
Hand-held Raman spectrometers could speed up the evaluation of raw materials and help to identify counterfeit products.

Finalist: Peter Höjerback of Serstech (photo: Eric Brinkhorst, COMS 2013)
Finalist: Peter Höjerback of Serstech (photo: Eric Brinkhorst, COMS 2013)

We're not there yet, but techniques like these have the potential to revolutionize food shopping by allowing consumers of the future to walk into a supermarket and zap produce with their mobile phones to determine its quality. A more realistic picture might be slightly larger, but still portable devices that could also help military and police personnel perform rapid spot checks on suspicious material.

Companies such as Serstech are already busy exploring this space and the firm's CEO, Peter Höjerback, was one of the finalists in Monday evening's Young Technology Award, which gives start-ups the chance to top-up their funding by impressing a panel of venture capitalists (VCs) and industry veterans.

Other companies on stage included C-Voltaics (stain resistant and protective coatings), MIMETAS (organ-on-a-chip), BoBClean (localized ultrasonic cleaning) and Ouchless Glucose (wearable glucose monitor).

•   For more news on the commercialization of micro- and nanomaterials, visit TMR+ - the companion blog to the new IOP journal Translational Materials Research.