02 Jun 2010   |   News

Nanotechnology needs big facilities

The science of the very small needs big, expensive instruments. More coordination is needed in Europe to translate basic research through to commercialisation.

Image courtesy ORNL.

After a decade of rapid advance nanotechnology is now poised to play a central role in fields as diverse as climate change and health care. But there is a danger that a shortage or underuse of facilities for probing nanoscale materials and structures will present a roadblock.

Better coordination of these big facilities at national and European level and the creation of networks to provide open access, are essential for the nanotech revolution to stay on track, according to speakers at the first International Congress on Nanotechnology and Research Infrastructures in Barcelona last week.

“The European challenge at the moment is indeed developing a real multi- and interdisciplinary environment in big research infrastructures,” Carlo Rizzuto, head of Italy’s Elettra synchrotron and chair of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), told Science|Business in an interview.

Rizzuto says this can be done by integrating all the existing facilities in a network, allowing scientists from different fields of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and others to work together.

Apart from integrating resources and giving different disciplines a chance to contribute, the nanosciences also need to overcome scientific challenges. The key issue is that we cannot see the structure of nanomolecules yet, “We can only measure microscopic parameters,” Helmut Dosch, chair of DESY, the German particle physic research centre told delegates.

The ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale depends on observing materials with enough definition to see individual atoms, which is only possible using intense beams from synchrotrons and neutron sources. This is critical because the materials design of tomorrow will increasingly be done by the control of individual atoms, ions and molecules.

The Barcelona meeting was organised on the initiative of members of Gennesys, a European partnership bringing together nanomaterials science and nanotechnology on one hand, and synchrotron radiation and neutron facilities on the other. Gennesys last year published a detailed report on the new strategic role for existing and emerging big science facilities in overcoming the key barriers in the development of advanced nanomaterials.

The aim of the Gennesys partnership is to promote a new culture in the world of nanomaterials, in which research discoveries can be smoothly transferred into industrial innovation by networks of researchers, working with modern research infrastructures.

In need of open access

One of the key barriers to doing this is the limited access to research infrastructure. There is a need for a more open use of the existing facilities, according to Rizzuto. “There is a project in a preparatory phase, the Nanoscience Foundries Fine Analysis (NFFA)/Gennesys vision, which aims to further open these laboratories, adding to the existing programmes for international access,” Rizutto said.  NFFA would provide researchers with open access to a pan-European distributed facility, set up under the rules of the European Research Infrastructure Consortium programme.  

The need for open access is shared by researchers at the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) in Japan, a leader in nanotechnology, with government funding of €800 million a year. The Japanese support the sharing of nanofacilities and the concept of open access, said Masahiro Takemura from NIMS, presenting the Nanotechnology Network Project, which aims at strengthen collaboration between scientists and industry in Japan.

The US is facing similar challenges. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) kicked off in 2005 with a brief to promote a new culture in the world of nanomaterials, in which research discoveries are smoothly be transferred into industrial innovations around modern research infrastructure platforms.  

“One of the missions of NNI is to overcome barriers that block the sharing of ideas, data and experiences,” said Cora Marrett, deputy director of the National Science Foundation. The budget of NNI member agencies for nanotechnology research in 2011 is nearly €1.4 billion.  

Basic research versus applied research

Hervé Pero, Head of Unit for Research Infrastructures within the Directorate General for Research at the European Commission the European Commission, told delegates the main challenge in the nanotechnology research infrastructure field in Europe is to integrate all activity, from research through to innovation.

But some scientists are concerned about the balance in the future investment in basic research against applied research. “One of the major issues is that there is a clear trend towards reducing funding for basic research and increasing research funding for applied research, as a result of the current economic crisis,” Iain Mattaj, director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), told Science|Business.

The head of EMBL says that innovation comes from supporting basic research in science facilities. “Most of the times it is in basic research infrastructures where the new technologies develop, which will be later [used] in applied research,” For example, Mattaj noted, this is the case for the World Wide Web, which was created at the Particle Physics laboratory at CERN in Geneva.

Big research infrastructures

There was a general consensus among European scientists at the Barcelona meeting on the urgent need for better organisation of existing big science facilities in Europe, enabling researchers to make the most of the available resources. In the current fragmented approach to big science facilities, member countries risk wasting resources by building duplicate facilities, or if they are not able to build them for lack of funds their researchers have problems getting access to facilities elsewhere.

For individual member countries, “It’s a very difficult and long process for a planned expensive infrastructure to become a reality,” points out Ramon Pascual, chairman of the executive commission of the ALBA synchrotron in Barcelona. The first facility of its kind in Spain, ALBA was inaugurated last March, almost 20 years after it was first proposed.

The ESFRI was created in 2002 to improve European integration and open access in this area, and to identify new research infrastructures that Europe’s researchers need. But in order for ESFRI to be able to carry out its task properly, “It needs more decision-making power and funding,” said Mattaj.

He should know. EMBL maintains its own bioinformatics facility, the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, providing open access to Europe’s core life sciences data. This resource is used by more than 1,000,000 scientists every year.

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