Breakthrough for thinner, faster, lighter gadgets

LIZA KAPPELLE
Last updated 05:00 06/01/2013
Molybdenum oxide crystal lattice
SIZE MATTERS NOT: Artist impression of high carrier mobility through layered molybdenum oxide crystal lattice.

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Some Australian researchers have made a new material that could revolutionise the electronics market with thinner, faster and lighter gadgets.

Others are using nano-inspired technology to detect cancers, deliver drugs into the bloodstream, explore for oil and gas in an environmentally friendly way, enhance security, purify water, and make prosthetics.

Who knows what they could do next?

Australian researchers want to remain among the world leaders of innovation and snare a hefty share of the global nanotechnology product market that's tipped to be worth $3 trillion by 2020.

Nanotechnology has become a priority area for development and funding in many nations, including China.

And the sector appears to offer endless opportunities for different fields to team up to exploit the fact that seemingly stable materials develop weird and wonderful properties in the nano form.

Gold, for example, has scientists excited and not for its more than US$1600 an ounce price tag.

RMIT University's Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) Suresh Bhargava says for centuries, gold has been defined as a noble metal, or a stable one that's resistant to corrosion and oxidisation.

"But the same metal, when it comes to nano forms, is full of fantastic properties," Professor Bhargava says.

Nano sizes can be easier to comprehend when people realise a human hair is about 80,000 times bigger than a nano particle, the molecular biologist says.

One of Prof Bhargava's projects is using nano-engineered flecks of gold in a sensor to attract and measure one of the world's most poisonous air pollution substances, mercury.

"Mercury is a very toxic element. Sixty thousand babies in the US alone are born each year with mercury-related diseases," he says.

The sensor is almost ready for commercialisation and they are also working on ways to remove the toxic element from the air.

"It is not far away," he tells AAP.

Australian researchers are also making waves in electronics.

They announced on Friday, in the journal Advanced Materials, they had developed a new two-dimensional material made up of layers of crystal known as molybdenum oxides, with properties that encourage the free flow of electrons at ultra-high speeds.

This could boost the speed of communication and capacitance - the ability to store an electrical charge in a small chip.

One of the team, CSIRO's Serge Zhuiykov, says the importance of the new discovery will mean they'll be able to transfer data more quickly, and the functionality of devices will improve.

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"At the moment it is beyond our imagination where this new material could be applied, but it could be employed to create thinner mobile phones, new types of flexible electronics or lighter laptops," he says.

Prof Bhargava says nanotechnology is being exploited by a raft of industries, including oil and gas exploration, where a lot of sensors are required.

"It can become more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, it is 21st century exploration," he says.

But one of the biggest hurdles to making the most of innovation in nanotechnology in Australia is getting support for multidisciplinary research through project funding, resourced networking and research infrastructure.

Vipul Bansal, of RMIT's School of Applied Sciences, is working on a nanochip biosensor for malaria and other diseases.

He is also using nanoparticles as drug delivery vehicles and working with cancer researchers to improve detection imaging.

"The biggest challenge is lack of opportunity for biological scientists and material scientists to work together," Dr Bansal says.

People who work on the interface of medical and material sciences can't have research funded by the two main commonwealth funding bodies - the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council, he says.

"Commonwealth money is used but they don't work together, which is a shame," he says.

Acting Industry and Innovation Minister Senator Chris Evans tells AAP the government is aware of the problem.

Its National Research Investment Plan (NRIP) identifies a series of actions to enhance and improve the way research is organised, funded and coordinated in Australia.

"These actions, while not focussing specifically on nanotechnology, are relevant to the issues raised by the sector," he says.

Prof Bhargava says competition for funding can impede cooperation.

"Instead of competing in the same area, when the market and the funding is getting very short, do it in a complementary way," he says.

Late last year, the Australian Academy of Science's National Nanotechnology Research Strategy was launched with a warning that economies and industries that failed to invest in nano-inspired technology could be left behind as products with improved or new functionality replaced the old.

The national strategy called for industry, academia and government to form an alliance to maximise the potential economic, social and environmental gains made possible through nanotechnology.

The federal government has not formally responded yet, but Senator Evans says it recognises the importance of driving nanotechnology innovation in Australia and a number of initiatives supported through the National Enabling Technologies Strategy are attempting to address it.

"Nanotechnology will play an important role in Australia's future," he said.

"It is important to understand where Australia's research strengths lie and to create linkages between researchers and industry."

The government will release an Industry and Innovation statement early this year, which the senator says will further enhance research collaboration and innovation.

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FUTURE INDUSTRY FOR AUSTRALIA

* Researchers in materials science, physics, chemistry, engineering and medical science are teaming up to exploit opportunities in nanotechnology.

* Clothing, cosmetics, sporting equipment, optical and electronics devices and public health are in their sights

* The nanotechnology product market could deliver $3 trillion in global revenue by 2020

* That industry could employ six million new workers by 2020.

Source: the national nanotechnology research strategy on the Australian Academy of Science website

- AAP

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