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Nano: the new buzzword in science and technology

Earlier this year, the European Commission launched a coordinated call for proposals for research related to nanotechnology - dubbed the 'science of the small' - under its Fifth RTD Framework programme (FP5), increasing the Community contribution from the 200 million euro avai...
Earlier this year, the European Commission launched a coordinated call for proposals for research related to nanotechnology - dubbed the 'science of the small' - under its Fifth RTD Framework programme (FP5), increasing the Community contribution from the 200 million euro available under the previous Fourth Framework programme to 225 million.

And as opportunities to fund nanotechnology-related research opened up at the same time in FP5's Quality of life, Growth and Information society technologies programmes, the United States' National Science Foundation (NSF) also announced its own call for proposals, paving the way for transatlantic collaborative opportunities.

Adding to this the fact that nanotechnology has already been highlighted as one of the scientific areas of priority (alongside post genomic research) under the Commission's vision of a European Research Area (ERA) and US President Clinton's announcement of a special 'National nanotechnology initiative' in January 2000, it is clear that nanotechnology has captured the attention and imagination of scientists and policy makers both in Europe and the USA. But why?

Because, although some nanotechnology applications - technological innovations based on structures one billionth of a metre small - are already on the market, this interdisciplinary science (which draws on physics, chemistry and biology) is still in its infancy. When it comes of age, many believe it will drive the next industrial revolution:

'The world market for nano-electronics alone will be worth many hundreds of billions of euros in products such as more powerful computers and memories with higher storage densities designed for use in telephones, cars and the multitude of consumer and industrial applications that are microprocessor controlled,' says the Commission. The new technology, it says, will be used to improve solar cells, anti-corrosion coatings, cutting tools, air purifiers, medical implants and transport. 'Nano-biotechnology will provide bio-sensors and bio-materials. 'Here the impact on medicine and human health will be far reaching, ranging from ever-increasing sophisticated DNA-chips and precision drug delivery systems to ever more bio-compatible materials,' the Commission predicts.

'If you can manipulate atoms and molecules at this [the nano] scale you may be able to build machines on the scale of human cells or create materials or structures 'from the bottom up', building in desired properties,' chimes the National Science Foundation (NSF). 'Nanotechnology could change the way almost everything, from medicines to computers to automobile tyres to objects not yet imagined, are designed and made.'

A mutual desire to push nanotechnology further up the political agenda and promote collaboration between the best researchers on both sides of the Atlantic drove the Commission and NSF to organise a joint EU-US nanotechnology workshop in Toulouse on 19 October.

Held under the umbrella of the EU-US agreement on scientific and technological cooperation and the Implementation agreement between the European Commission and the NSF, it aimed to define the state of the art on both sides of the Atlantic; to strengthen mutual awareness of existing activities in nano-scale science and engineering; promote awareness within the US and European scientific community about the possibilities offered by the agreement; and to obtain the scientists' view of areas where EU-NSF joint projects could have a particularly high impact and mutual benefit. Attention was given to the three main fields of nano-electronics, nano-materials and nano-biotechnology, as well as the challenges of manufacturing at nano-scale.

A number of eminent personalities joined the workshop, including the President of the Chamber of Commerce in Toulouse, Mr Junca, Nobel Prize winner (for physics in 1998) Professor Horst Stormer, the Director General of the Institute of biophysics at the Austrian Academy of sciences, Professor Peter Laggner, Research Commissioner, Philippe Busquin and Dr M.C. Roco, senior advisor at the NSF and chair of the US national science and technology Council 's subcommittee on nano-scale science, technology and engineering.

Opening the workshop, Commissioner Busquin emphasised the economic and social importance of nanotechnology. It is essential to nurture advances in this area as quickly as possible, he told participants, before going on to explain his commitment to an open and diverse European Research Area, which will be welcoming to scientists right across the world. 'I think this is a unique opportunity for a vision for the US and Europe,' he said.

Scientific orientations followed the political, with keynote addresses from Professors Stormer and Laggner. Both made particularly colourful and impassioned cases for support and collaboration for nanotechnology.

'The essence of nano is self assembly...enticing complex molecules to form bigger heterogeneous aggregates, which perform an intricate function or constitute a material with unprecedented properties,' explained Stormer. 'The nanoscale seems to be made for this game. We have little expertise with any of this but that's what makes it a science having enormous potential for technology. The time is ripe to accept the challenge, which needs to be addressed by chemistry, physics, and material science with a good dose of engineering mixed in and not neglecting a close look at biology which has practised the art since the dawn of time.'

Not everything is 'going nano', he added: 'Some things will always remain big. But they will be influenced by nanotechnology. For example, a plane will stay the same size but the navigation system and material it's made from may change.'

For Professor Laggner, who says he has been living in the nano world the whole of his scientific life, nanotechnology is the key to translating the intricate mechanisms seen in nature. 'We're good at looking at structures and bad at looking at the mechanisms of processes. We must develop tools to watch things functioning...Unless we understand the dynamics, we will never understand the function.'

He called for collaboration between scientific disciplines in academia and industry: 'We have had for a long time the linear model of innovation. A segmented view is more appropriate now. In essence, this should be parallel networking in time and space working at the same time on the same project. That needs structure. It is very difficult to say which infrastructures one would need But we can provide...the necessary strategic tools, resources and assets that have to be improved and must be accessible to SMEs...Most scientists don't even know what the synchrotron can do for them.' Organising people and their talents is vital, he concluded.

Laggner wants to stimulate a fascination in nanotechnology similar to that commanded by space science. 'It's like molecular biology 30 years ago - one new super process and discipline,' he says.

Ezio Andretta, Director of the Research DG's programme for competitive and sustainable growth also expressed encouragement: 'When we can do nanotechnology the third industrial revolution will be established,' he said. 'Nanotechnology is at an early stage but it's the driving force of the future.'

'Long term fundamental research is needed to discover new phenomena, understand the basic building blocks, develop processes and tools at the nano-scale and, finally create innovative technologies and educate and train a new work force. Investment is critical,' agrees the NSF.

Under the Commission's Fifth Framework programme, 15 nanotechnology-related projects are now being financed through the Quality of life programme (nano-biotechnology); 15 through the Information society technologies programme (nano-electronics) and 20 under the Growth programme (nano-materials for all sectors). The latest EU initiatives in nanotechnology include a survey of networking activities covering all aspects of nanotechnology research in all the Member States and associated states.

Source: CORDIS News

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