The nanotech revolution in NZ

The latest buzz word in science is "nanotechnology". Many people have a vague notion that this is about very small things.

And it is. Nanotechnology is the ability to control individual atoms, or design and construct arrangements of atoms.

It doesn't sound simple and it isn't. Apart from being extremely small, most atoms whiz around at lightning speed, and vibrate constantly. They are hard to pin down, though you can slow them by cooling the temperature and then trapping them in "wells" - like eggs in an egg carton.

Tomorrow night, Dr Don Eigler, IBM Fellow and pioneer in the art of nanotechnology, will be in Christchurch as a guest of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. Eigler achieved fame in the late 1980s by being the first to move and fix a single atom, and going on to write the letters I-B-M using 35 xenon atoms.

Since then, Eigler has achieved more breakthroughs, including development of an electron trap, known as the "quantum corral".

His significant contribution to nanoscience research over many decades earned him a 2010 Kavli Prize.

All going well, Eigler will connect to his lab in California tomorrow night and demonstrate live his powers of atomic manipulation from the Arts Centre Great Hall, where he is giving a public talk. Sold out, alas.

The most exciting thing Eigler has seen so far is the research being done by Dr Samuel Stupp at Northwestern University, in Illinois. He is constructing "nano- fibrils" out of proteins and hydrocarbon molecules that can help the body repair damaged nerves. He has been able to reverse paralysis in mice.

Eigler is also willing forward the development of synthetic cartilages to repair the shattered ones in his own knees, damaged from skiing and other sports.

The environment, too, is desperately seeking some technological saviours right now. Eigler cites a new water purification and desalination system being worked on at IBM, based on a nanotechnology invention, that could be placed between dairy farm run-off and stream, he imagines.

Locally, a powerful clean air protector has been designed by the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year, Dr John Watt. He builds star-like clusters of palladium atoms which neutralise toxic car emissions before they become emissions.

Eigler talks about the real possibility of cars made from nano-structured materials that are a quarter of their current weight, but strong.

The massive energy savings could go a long way to helping the planet. Batteries to power cars - up to 500 miles a charge - and aircraft are also on the research agenda.

He says New Zealand's work in nanotechnology is of global standard and relevance. One of MacDiarmid's collaborators, New Zealand nanotechnology company Izon (formerly Australo), has developed nano-pores to sieve and count viruses - the smallest living things.

The idea of selling a very small hole to the rest of the world, at a very high price, is beyond Gerry Brownlee's wildest export dream.

Eigler is currently experimenting with using the magnetic orientation of individual atoms as a means of computation. As far as we can see (which history has shown is not very far at all), a single atom computing device is the lowest limit of miniaturisation.

You may not get very excited at the thought of smaller transistors and greater computational power, but think about the savings in energy and materials and the other social and economic benefits, and you start to see the potential of nanotechnology.

As a rough rule of thumb, if you halve the size of components, you can do four times as many computations for the same cost, and the energy required is reduced by a factor of eight.

Says Eigler, "the last 40 years have been pretty amazing but you ain't seen nothing yet."

When he's not taming atoms, Eigler trains dogs to serve mobility impaired people. "Some dogs are as hard to keep still as atoms," he says. "Both require a lot of patience."

Nanotechnology pioneer Don Eigler speaks in Christchurch this week. Glenda Lewis explains his science and how Kiwis may one day sell very small holes to the world.


* MacDiarmid Institute:

* Eigler's lab at IBM Research, Almaden:

The Press