Imagine a memory storage device or an electronic circuit only a few thousand atoms in width and made up of molecule-sized components.
These devices may very well be the future of nanotechnology, an area of applied science and engineering devoted to the atom-by-atom design of structures typically less than a hundred nanometres in size.
To put this into perspective, a nanometre is a mere billionth of a metre.
A partnership that will provide $4.5 million over three years towards research and development of materials-based nanotechnology was announced recently.
The National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) along with the Mississauga-based Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC) and the Government of Alberta will invest funds and human resources to create a program and teams to lead the work.
NINT – a multidisciplinary institution with researchers in science, engineering, pharmacy, medicine, business and law – is operated by the National Research Council and the University of Alberta, and jointly funded by the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta and the university.
The XRCC is a materials research centre that develops environmentally sound materials and processes to support higher-quality and lower-cost Xerox products.
The relationship between the national research institute and a product vendor is one of altruism, says Nils Peterson, director general at the Edmonton-based NINT. “It’s a good partnership where we can learn from them about the commercialization of nanotechnology, and in turn, we can help them develop new product lines.”
Six to 10 scientists will be hired to work on materials-based nanotechnology, including document and display-related technologies.
Nanotechnology will have applications in just about everything, says Peterson. “Our understanding of materials and matter at a molecular scale will help us transform a lot of different types of industries.”
Paterson foresees the use of nano-scale science in such areas as agriculture, life science, energy, and food production.
Materials-based research essentially means using nanotechnology to create materials with enhanced properties, such as superior durability at a lower cost and more ease of use.
These structures – or materials – can be built under controlled conditions using building blocks, such as atoms, molecules, nanometre-sized particles, layers and wires, says Hadi Mahabadi, vice-president and director of the XRCC.
“Nanotechnology could play a major role by significantly improving materials,” he says.
Xerox’s ‘EA (Emotion Aggregation) Toner’ is precisely an example of this, says Mahabadi, because the micron-sized toner particles have a controlled structure of uniform size and shape, which produce sharper image quality and more effective usage.
Introduced in 2001, the EA Toner is now used in more than 20 Xerox products.
Although the EA Toner stemmed from materials-based research, commercially-viable devices can be built from these materials, says Mahabadi.
For instance, Xerox has been developing “electronic paper” – a sheet of paper that functions like a laptop – on which a user can download information. “It’s a page that you can roll and put in your pocket but contains information equivalent to a book,” he says.
Mahabadi can’t provide a specific timeline as to when the product might hit the market – completion of the technology, manufacturing and adaptability are crucial factors in a market launch, he says.
The partnership with NINT, he says, will help accelerate the research that has begun into electronic paper.
Collaborations between companies, universities and government are important, says Gilbert Walker, professor at the University of Toronto’s chemistry department, and Canadian research chair in molecular microscopy and nanophotonic devices.
“A national or academic lab often comes up with patents that greatly stimulate the interests of the industry, who often transition that into commercial value.”
Nanotechnology is a highly competitive area internationally where Canada has a real opportunity to lead, says Walker. “The reason to support this research is to ensure that Canada will be the owner of this intellectual property.”
At last week’s announcement, Bob Fessenden, Alberta deputy minister, said that strategic partnerships play a vital role in innovation. “It provides a bridge to take scientific ideas through the full cycle of innovation, and to take people – leaders and learners alike – through the process together, from initial concept to commercialization.”
Peterson, too, thinks that the nanotechnology sky is limitless. “The commercial impact of nanotechnology will enable new technologies that will then drive new industries.”