Very big things in very small packages

May 15, 2010 23:47

Local universities bid to join nanotech leaders.

Nanotechnology at BIU.

nanotechnology 311. (photo credit:Courtesy of BIU)

If staffers at Bar-Ilan University’s magnificent new nanotechnology research center take frequent coffee breaks to chat in the atrium that links its 38 labs, they can justifiably claim they are working. When scientists from a wide variety of disciplines working in the range of nanometers (billionths of a meter) get together, new ideas inevitably sprout from the interaction.

Nanotech, the science of the small, is relevant to fields from chemistry and energy storage to drug development and photonics, with the principle being that it involves materials sized in nanometers – billionths of a meter.

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It was only by chance that both BIU in Ramat Gan and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba dedicated nanotechnology research centers, one at a cost of $150 million and the other $42 million, on the same day last week. But it wasn’t a coincidence that all of Israel’s universities but one have facilities specializing in nano research; this relatively new megafield will dominate science in the coming decades.

With powerful new products so tiny, they could be robots that course through the human circulatory system to catch cancer cells, or painted-on photovoltaic cells that produce electrical energy from solar rays more efficiently. They could be particles that reduce friction in engines to improve fuel consumption, or a delivery device that brings two different medications to a specific part of the body without affecting healthy cells, or textiles that kill germs.

\Nanotechnology wasn’t even a word when the idea behind it was first suggested by the late great California Institute of Technology physicist Prof. Richard Feynman. At the end of 1959, he gave a lecture on the possibility of manipulating atoms and molecules to build new materials. The actual word was coined by a Japanese professor 36 years ago. The scanning tunneling microscope, atomic force microscope and other tools in the 1980s and 1990s launched nanotech on a practical level, and nine years ago the US National Nanotechnology Initiative was established to supervise federal R&D in the field.

IN THIS COUNTRY, nanotech has been given a boost by the Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative (INNI), which last year initiated its first international nanotechnology conference called NanoIsrael: Showcasing Israeli Nanotechnology at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel. World-class experts, investors, businessmen and government representatives from Israel and abroad spent two days discussing how to promote Israeli nanotechnology to the level that has made hi-tech and startups so prominent here.

Israeli universities and industries have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in nanotech, and scientists in many disciplines have gotten together to find ways of applying their knowledge. Within the past three years, the number of nanotech research groups here has nearly doubled, and the number of companies active in the field went from 45 to 75. While a huge investment in nano could become too much of a good thing, facilities in most of the universities create great cooperation, even jealousy, which can be a good thing.

BIU sets its Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Nanotechnology Triplex apart from the country’s other nano research centers not only because it’s the largest, but also because the university has made a special effort to bring home young Israeli scientists who had left for post-doctoral work at the California Institute of Technology, Harvard and University of Cambridge.

Thirteen have returned and joined 27 senior scientists who did not stay abroad after their post-doctoral work. The 38 research groups were joined by 340 master’s degree and mostly doctoral degree students and technicians.

Prof. Arie Zaban, originally of BIU’s chemistry department and now director of the nanotech center – which waited for three years to get its own building on campus – enthused: “This is one of most exciting places in the world. The different ‘languages’ of specific scientific fields are being broken and melded together. Whoever comes in here doesn’t want to leave.”

NANOTECH, more than most other fields, requires ongoing cooperation with private industry to commercialize the products developed, and BIU works with prestigious international companies such as General Motors, IBM, Philiips and Siemens.

While $150 million is a huge amount to collect from philanthropists, BIU president Prof. Moshe Kaveh – who welcomed science journalists shown around the center – said: “If an idea is right, you will find the money for it.” Nanotechnology, he said, is not well understood, but in the 21st century – without exaggeration – it will change our daily life and our quality of life. It has sparked excitement in universities around the world. Centers of excellence like ours will bring back even more outstanding Israeli researchers, at least some of the nearly 1,000 who have left the country in the past decade.”

The global financial crisis helped BIU, as some of the Israelis who were offered jobs at prestigious universities were suddenly left suspended by the crash. Things have calmed down somewhat in the US, and the best Israelis won’t return unless they are offered the best labs, equipment and doctoral students to work with, Kaveh added. But investment is worthwhile, as data shows that for each dollar put in, $20 results from the products they develop. Patents follow.

The university hears from potential returnees, and after determining that they are of a high level and suited to its nano research, its officials discuss the conditions they need to succeed. “The most important thing is innovation. We bring in the elite of science. They come with a lot of enthusiasm,” Kaveh said.

PROF. HAROLD BASCH, Kaveh’s deputy president for research, said the university realized a few years ago “there wasn’t room in the old premises, so we decided to build a new facility.”

“Lasers used to be described as a solution looking for a problem,” said Prof. Benjamin Ehrenberg, dean of the faculty of exact sciences. “Now you can say the same thing about nanotch. It offers so many incredible solutions – developing new materials, solutions for energy shortages, medical treatments. Six startups emerged from our nano research center in the old facility in the past three years. When commercialized, the university will get back some of the money it invested.”

Two of the 13 returnees and one immigrant hired by BIU who met with journalists were all overjoyed, with no complaints about how they were “absorbed” into the nano center, or even about their families’ reintegration into Israeli society.

Dr. Doron Gerber, a biochemist, studied in Israel and went to Stanford University in California for his post-doctoral work. “It’s very tempting to remain at Stanford, as it’s among the top institutions, maybe second to Harvard. They offer a lot of money and excellent conditions. Stanford alone has a $20 billion endowment, which is more than all of the Israel Council of Higher Education’s planning and budget committee has.”

He decided to work in integrated microfluidics. “I wanted to study the technology and asked biological questions, such as how viruses interact with a host and can cause disease and discover a meeting point between the host and the pathogen. But I knew I wanted to come back to Israel. I returned to BIU last October with my wife and two daughters. We feel we have come home. The university built a special clean room for my work on microfluidics, and I feel it is giving me all I need scientifically. I am an Israeli, not an American.” Most Israeli scientists, he says, leave for abroad with the intention of coming back. “But if you succeed,” said Gerber, “you have very attractive options. In Israeli, you often can’t fulfill your potential because of the lack of facilities and positions.”

DR. AMOS SHARONI, who earned his doctorate at the Hebrew University, left for the University of California at San Diego, where he decided to study means of growing complex materials and preparing the equipment needed for nanolithography. “I’m interested in the spinning of tiny magnets for creating new electronics.” Getting BIU’s offer, he returned recently with his wife and three children and hasn’t looked back.

Dr. David Zeitun, who earned his doctorate in France, went to the University of California at Berkeley for his post-doctoral work in nanowires and the printing of photozoltaic cells. A fluent Hebrew speaker but not born in Israel, he found that coming to BIU was “a perfect opportunity for aliya and a rise in my field. Our oldest daughter is seven, so it was a good time to return.”

Veteran BIU researchers are overjoyed by the young blood returning to Israel and coming to the nano center. Prof. Shulamit Michaeli, a veteran neurobiologist, is being helped to develop a way of fighting parasites that cause tropical diseases such as leishmaniasis (“Rose of Sharon”), Chagas disease and malaria. Leishmanisis is common in field units in the Israel Defense Forces, especially in the Jordan Rift, and the others wreak havoc in the developing world. “Leismaniasis cannot be treated with antibiotics, as it is not bacteria but parasites that cause it. The wound can be very disfiguring. We discovered a mechanism that – if a specific molecule is found, will be able to get the parasites to ‘commit suicide’ and the victims to cure themselves. Nanotechnology is likely to provide the solution.”

Although it is not yet completed, a 400-meter space in the bowels of the building, two floors below the entrance, is worth a visit. The concrete floors are pitted with holes that go down several meters. Eventually, they will contain “air bags” on which tables covered with delicate equipment will be installed.

Zaban explained that most nano centers try to find solid rock that can provide stability for  devices which have to fuse two nanoparticles or examine them; they can’t afford any vibrations. “But there is no rock here, so we decided on the air on which the floors will float, isolating the facility from vibrations originating at the nearby Geha Highway, and electromagnetic forces. It is a very solid base to a solid center of research.”
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