Canada funds nanotechnology product fab

The Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance in partnership with the NRC are establishing a $4.5 million facility that will create prototype technology products based on conductive polymer instead of silicon.

The nanofabrication centre

will be housed at the Boucherville, Que.-based industrial materials research complex operated by the National Research Council, which will be a partner in the project. While NRC personnel will initially staff the centre, the NanoBusiness Alliance plans to spin off a business that will recruit dedicated staff for the project.

Nanotechnology refers to components or circuitry that approaches the size of atoms. Nanometers measure approximately a millionth of a millimetre. Some scientists hope that the emerging science will be used to build super-high-density microprocessors and memory chips, among other things. Canadian interest in the field has been growing since 2001, when the National Research Council (NRC) held a roundtable where it discussed its plans for a National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in Edmonton. Around the same time, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) appointed a research director for a Nano Innovation Platform.

Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance president Neil Gordon said the centre will use nanoprint lithography to create its products, a method that he said could produce devices at 50 or even 30 nanometres (nm). Potential products include biosensors, lab-on-a-chip applications, wearable electronics and organic LEDs.

“The volumes will not be great, but we’re not going after mainstream electronics,” he said. “The plan is to get our operational and technological and business process in place and then eventually evolve into a mini-fab.”

Gordon said the centre’s first customers will likely be big pharmaceutical companies who don’t want to invest in their own nanoprint lithography labs. Another area, according to NRC director of advanced materials design Michel Dumoulin, is replacing optical lithography in CPUs for electronic devices. Moore’s Law might not be sustainable because of physical limits of wavelengths of light, he said, and several firms in the industry have been examining nanoprint lithography as an alternative. Having a contract fab in place could be critical in the next few years, he said. 

“We’re talking a billion or two for setting up a plant for chips,” he said. “The industry is not going to move away from those investments.”

The NRC started a lab to specialize in nanoprint lithography about three years ago, Dumoulin said, but it may still be too early to know how nanofabrication will compete with the kind of chip manufacturing capabilities offered by Intel, AMD or IBM.

“We’re at the beginning of the curve with that technology,” he said. “You can’t compare it with fabrication processes that have been running and optimized for such a number of years.”

Canada rich in nanotechnology experts who could staff a Canadian NanoBusiness spin-off, Gordon said, many of them working in government or academia. “The challenge has been how do you migrate them into industry?” He said. “Projects like this are going to be well-received, because now they have a place for all those post-graduate students.”

Government funding for the nanofabrication centre came from Canada Economic Development as well as the NRC and will partly go to the lab’s capital costs.

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