Nanotechnology gets down to business

Canadian researchers say they are determined to prove nanotechnology is more than just a scientific parlour game and will help create new forms of IT equipment for enterprises.

Ever since single-walled carbon nanotubes were discovered in the early 1990s, the scientific community around the

world has discussed in glowing terms the potential of the tiny technology. Measured in nanometres — which has a width of approximately 10 hydrogen atoms lined up — nanotubes are self-created from an electrical discharge between electrons. They could eventually perform the same functions as microprocessors, some say, making computers run billions of times faster.

The opportunity presented by nanotechnology has already led to at least one scandal, when last September the experiments of Bell Labs scientist Jan Hendrik Schön were proven false. It has also entered popular culture: Prey, the new thriller by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, concerns a nanotechnology firm.

Though most experts agree that the real-world application of nanotechnology is at least a decade away, a number of research and business alliances have recently been forged in Canada to get some momentum going. In May 2001, for example, the National Research Council (NRC) held a roundtable where it discussed its plans for a National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in Edmonton, Alberta. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) appointed a research director for a Nano Innovation Platform. A Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance has already been formed.

“”There’s a clear sense that people feel it’s moving quickly,”” says Chaviva Hosek, chair of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which has had a nanotechnology program going since 1989. “”You understand how science works; sometimes you get a good run and a bunch of stuff gets you to another bunch of stuff, and suddenly you’re further ahead than you thought you were.””

The CIAR funds pre-competitive research that usually sticks to some big, basic questions that have no answers yet. Hosek says its researchers — who include scientists from IBM, HP and Hitachi — see themselves as part of the discovery process. Early projects from the CIAR group include the creation of a photonic chip. Hosek says it looks like a Swiss cheese-type cube. Made of silicon, the chip allows information to be transferred through light. That means it takes much less energy and is much less distorted than our current method of getting information to move.

Though the benefits of a photonic chip are obvious, Hosek says IT managers shouldn’t expect Michael Dell to start including them in his line of PCs anytime soon.

“”One part is figuring out how to make it how to happen on one chip. The next question is always about scale, and that can take a very long time,”” she says. “”Nonetheless, we’re talking about a tremendous breakthrough of both conception and experiment that is clearly going to have a result.””

Neil Gordon, a principal with Montreal consulting firm Sygertech and president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, says magnetic storage is another of the possible low-hanging fruits to emerge from early research.

“”If you have a higher-surface area material, or a material which has a greater property for magnetic characteristics, you could put more information on your hard drive,”” he says. “”That’s already at the nano level; without even knowing it, people are already using nanotechnology in the form of nano coatings.””

At IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y., a Canadian researcher named Chris Murray is leading a team to create nanotechnology-based magnetic storage in partnership with Hitachi. Murray says one of the challenges in growing carbon-based nanotubes is to produce them in well-controlled environments that have the right kind of electronic properties. In any case, nanotechnology does not solve everything. “”Supermagnetic advances can bring down hard drive prices, but we’re reaching the limits of where the molecules can be broken down,”” he says.

At the device level, Gordon imagines the rise of nano-based microelectrical mechanical systems, actuators, sensors and mirrors. “”Depending on how your IT and information collection system is being used, these detectors may or may not already be in place in certain systems.””

Dan Wayner, the acting director general of the NINT, said it is important for researchers to take a “”systems-level”” view of their work that allows components based on nano materials to work together.

“”You can make an IC chip, and that’s a component, but it’s really not very useful unless you’ve integrated that into a system,”” he said. “”The key to nanotechnology, in my view, is this whole business of integration.””

Hosek agrees. “”We need to get information from the real world and back out,”” she says. “”Otherwise you find yourself, in many cases, with some really interesting science, but nothing that ever has a chance to be useful.””

The NanoBusiness Alliance — which Gordon says is composed of a “”SWAT team”” of several public and private sector experts — is urging the government to foster greater coordination among and investment in nantotech projects. In comparison, the U.S. already has a nantotech initiative funded through the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the departments of Energy, Health and Defence. Canada, Gordon says, already has a lot of catching up to do.

“”Not be overly alarmist, but it’s a disaster waiting to happen,”” he said. “”We do not have a nanotech strategy, and there are 20 or 30 industrialized countries who have one. Every day the gap between countries like Taiwan or Israel and Canada are growing deeper and deeper.””

Wayner says it could be a 15-year process to establish a nanotech cluster in Edmonton alone. “”It’s not a quick fix; we’re embarking on a process that’s strategic and not tactical,”” he says. In the meantime, he says we need to keep the tension between industrial communities looking for short-term success that will help the bottom line, and researchers focused on long-term advancements in fundamental science.

“”For any company that wants to be here 10 years from now, they need to understand it, they need to be already thinking about how they’re going to transform themselves,”” he says. “”We can get out quite far ahead, but if we don’t bring the businesses with us we end up with vacuum tube companies in a transistor world.””

As progress is made, Murray says nanotechnology may simply become the word we use to describe the cutting edge. “”As soon as you control it and demystify it, it inevitably gets seeded into the existing technology,”” he says. “”It may always be the technology of the future.””

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