State-of-the-art nanotechnology lab to open in Alberta

A nanotechnology facility scheduled to open later this week in Alberta will examine medical and scientific issues from improving circuit design to the ethics of synthesizing new materials.

A joint initiative between the government of Alberta, the federal government, the University of Alberta, the National Research Council and the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) will officially open its door on Thursday.

The seven-story, 20,000 sq.-m. facility is located on the U of A campus and will be accessible to a range of students from chemistry, engineering and medical faculties.

“Here students can roam from the university side to the new nano institute essentially with no barriers and they get access to superb equipment and also a really wide range of people and expertise. I think it leads to a really enhanced education for our students,” said Robert Wolkow, principal research officer at NINT. Wolkow was one of the original architects of the project when it was first proposed in 2001.

The centre-piece of the facility is a piece of equipment called a scanning, tunneling microscope, which is able to able to ‘feel’ the surface on a minute object using an atom-sized probe. It acts like the needle of a record-player, explained Wolkow, detecting atomic-scale features on the surface like grooves in vinyl.

“In some cases we can move atoms and essentially put them where we want them to be. It’s the tool that many people see as the starting point for this great enthusiasm around nanoscience,” said Wolkow.

“We’ll also have some other unique pieces of equipment that allow us to manipulate molecules and measure the forces between them using something called laser tweezers,” added Nils Petersen, director general of NINT and also a professor of chemistry at the U of A. “We think of it as a characterization facility – something that allows us to characterize the properties of materials.”

A possible application is understanding molecular electronics or using single molecules to act as a switch for electronic circuitry that could make for a very small transistor, for example, said Nils. Other research applications in nanotechnology are its role in fuel cell development or new catalysts for energy conversion. It can also be used to look at biological systems like proteins or nucleic acids and study their interaction at the molecular level.

Ethical considerations are at the forefront of any new research, said Wolkow. One of the students that will have access to the facility will be an academic lawyer who specializes in such issues.

“We’re trying not to make mistakes that were perhaps made in other recent developing areas like genetics,” said Wolkow. “We could be making new materials that are unknown properties. Certainly you don’t want to be exposing people to things without a thorough understanding of what they do.”

NINT is as a facility that examines objects at the tiniest threshold of our comprehension, but it’s also being billed as one of the quietest spaces in Canada. The research necessitates a silent environment – one that will not disturb the delicate matter being examined.

The facility is built on meter-thick concrete pylons that extent 10 metres into the ground and are separated by rubber bumpers. Noise and temperature are strictly regulated to prevent any interference with experiments. Petersen said it’s too soon to tell if there will be a “no-talking” rule in the facility “but certainly it would be an environment where we would try to minimize radios and things like that.”

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