From an article published in the CAIRN Tribune, March 1996.
Do you realize that it is now possible to use microprobes to approach a surface, grab an atom or a molecule, move it to another place on the surface, and finally assemble small artificial structures!? This has been made possible by recent advances in instruments like the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and atomic force microscope (AFM). With these inventions it is now becoming possible to manipulate and observe matter on a microscopic scale - to create nanoscale structures and to build quantum devices.
Already for some time now it has been possible to build nanoscale layered materials using molecular beam epitaxy (MBE), chemical vapour deposition (CVD), etc., and to use ion and laser beams to "draw" patterns and small structures. However, with the new techniques one might be able to build some of these structures directly, like using bricks to build a house rather than carving a cave out of massive rock.
Recently it has become possible to use natural film growth mechanisms to create quantum dots (QD) in semiconductor material. Moreover, there is a strong development in the technology of gas phase nanosize clusters: metal clusters, fullerene soccer balls, carbon nanotubes, etc. When we add polymers and biomolecules, we have extremely interesting possibilities for creating artificial structures - nanoscale molecular engineering - which may show a wide range of both predicted and entirely new phenomena.
It goes without saying that this is a wonderful playground for fundamental research in physics. However, and perhaps more importantly, this development will certainly provide fantastic opportunities for applications of a new kind - materials and devices with new functions from electronic, chemical and biological points of view. In a not too distant future one will be able to build transmission lines for electronic and chemical signals, and to join natural and artifical structures. In a longer perspective one might be able to build complicated systems in two and three dimensions - one aspect of "complex systems".
Nanotechnology has been strongly supported in recent years. In order to stimulate advanced materials research in Sweden, in 1990 the Swedish govenment funding agencies NUTEK and NFR provided funding for eleven Materials Consortia with a budget of about 6 million Swedish crowns (about 1 million US$) per year each over a 10-year period. The program is now halfway, and this middle-aged creation has been evaluated for the second time by an international (entirely non-Swedish) group of well recognized scientists and project leaders from both University and Industry. The conclusions of the evaluation are so encouraging that I would like to share some of the results with you.
The highlights are that five Consortia come out particularly well, with flying banners, three of which are based at Chalmers/Göteborg University, (CTH/GU) one at Lund University (LU) and one at Linköping University (LiU). All of these Consortia deal with nanophysics in one form or another: biomaterials (CTH/GU), theory of materials (CTH/GU), superconductivity (CTH/GU), nanostructures (LU) and thin films (LiU).
The abovementioned CTH/GU Consortia are all based in the Physics Research building of the School of Physics and Engineering Physics. Their activities form the basis for the elective programme of the International Master's Programme in Physics and Engineering Physics - Nanophysics.
One of the driving forces behind the Consortia is that of technology transfer. The Consortia are in fact required to establish working relations - contacts, collaborations, partnership - with Industry. This has been a constant headache: technology transfer is a very difficult issue. What is technology for a University research scientist might represent impossible or uneconomic products or commercial sidetracks for Industry. Even if an idea is really good, it is not necessarily so that Industry wishes to receive or recognize this potential technology from University - there is in fact a Catch 22 aspect: if the idea is great and can be exploited, Industry will naturally want to develop it in their own closed laboratories; if on the other hand the technology may only be exploited in a 10-year perspective, Industry may adopt a very passive role.
The problem of inventing high-tech products is however not really a question of making University research become very applied - that is no solution, and may even destroy the basis for fundamental research and PhD training. Systematic University research is seldom the basis for great inventions or successful commercial products. Only in lucky cases, a commercially useful product will appear, perhaps developed in a small spin-off company or in an industrial laboratory. In the long run, the most important technology transfer will probably be that of highly trained PhD students and research specialists going to Industry, and sometimes research specialists from Industry taking up positions at University. This will help establishing common reference frames, channels for fast and efficient knowledge-transfer and, occasionally, common goals and revolutionary products.
Göran Wendin is Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Physics at Chalmers and a member of the Steering group of the Materials consortium on Superconductivity. He is also Coordinator of the International Masteręs Programme in Physics and Engineering Physics - Nanophysics.
The CAIRN Tribune is the official paper of the Alumni organization of the International Master's Programme at Chalmers University of Technology.