The bigger picture

Fri, Dec 4, 2009, 00:00

NANOTECH:Nano might be small but it can underpin big change, from how we read books to how we solve the energy crisis, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL

IF YOU have been in any way engaged or interested in science in recent years, the term "nanotechnology" will be familiar. But what does nanotechnology really mean to those working in the field? How is it any more than a nifty rebranding of what many scientists and engineers were doing anyway? And can something at such a tiny scale really help address the big issues we face as a species, like the looming energy crises?

"Nanotechnology and nanoscience means lots of things to lots of people," says Richard Friend, Cavendish professor of physics at the University of Cambridge and a scientific advisory board member at Crann in Trinity, where he visited last month ahead of nano-week.

Friend, a successful entrepreneur who co-founded two companies off the back of his lab's research, looks beyond the rigid definition that nanotechnology operates at a dimension of 100nm or less. His is a more conceptual view of nano as an approach that engages researchers who might not otherwise rub shoulders on a common question.

"For most of us involved with the management of research, we see nanoscience as a way of breaking down traditional boundaries between disciplines, where the result is something broader than what would have fitted in the traditional discplinary context," he says.

"In many other respects, what is called nanotechnology is simply a rebranding of what we were doing anyway. But the distinctiveness is where we are breaking out of the mould."

Friend himself broke the mould back in the 1980s with his work on plastic conductors, which was an emerging field at the time. "My background was in traditional semiconductor physics, but I happened to discover that people were interested in the possibility of moving electronic charges through organic materials. I found that exciting and wacky, it clicked," he recalls. "Rather little was known about it and that was a good reason to work on it."

At Cambridge, he developed plastics with molecular structures that allowed electronic charge to pass through freely. Using plastic rather than silicon opened up new opportunities for manufacturing and applying the conductive materials.

In particular, Friend's team discovered how to make light-emitting plastic and spin-out Cambridge Display Technologies was set up to commercialise the discovery. It might not raise an eyebrow now, but it was a maverick route to take 20 years ago, says Friend.

"We published a paper in 1990, where we had a polymer that could emit light when sandwiched between two electrodes. But the easiest way to kill an invention is to put it in the wrong hands, and we couldn't find a good local place in the UK back then so we set up a company," he recalls. "We all knew we wanted to be part of the action, we didn't want to publish a paper and wave goodbye and let others take the lead, and we knew that meant staying close to the technology. Back then setting up a company like that was considered a crazy thing to do. Now of course it's all the rage."

The plastic LED technology stood to transform the manufacture of screen displays, but translating a basic research finding into a commercial product can take time if a new manufacturing ecosystem has to develop to support it, notes Friend.

"There's a huge distance between seeing some light coming out of a device in the laboratory to saying here is your new telly," he says. "You have to be very patient because most materials technologies do take a decade or two to really become mainstream, and we were being very revolutionary."

The wait is paying off though, and a second spin-out, Plastic Logic, is set to launch its flexible e-reader next year.

However, Friend points out that controlling events at the nanoscale can offer more than innovative screen displays. He stresses the potential impact on a much bigger picture: how we generate and store energy. "There's a very interesting swing at the moment towards control of the nanoscale to tackle some of these big problems," he says.

"There has perhaps been too much of a focus on nano meaning you make a very small object and study it. There's an enormously important role for that because we have microscope techniques to zoom in on these structures and that's a powerful tool to help us develop small transistors. But there's another dimension to nano - that we want to have bulk materials that are highly informing in what they do because they are naturally controlled at the nanoscale."

Understanding nano-interactions and incorporating them into bulk materials could help develop innovative solutions to the energy problem, says Friend.

"It's very clear now that we have to do something about energy and the challenges are generation and storage - batteries, fuel cells, solar cells, what we want are bulk materials where we absolutely know their operation is determined by nanoscale. So the art is to find where there's a natural self-organisation that can give us the functional performance," he says.

"I do think if we are serious about the reduction in our energy usage, we are simply going to have to retool the materials we use and almost without exception the new oportunities are going to have to use nanotechnology to get there."

One example could involve printing plastic transistors over a large area to create cost-effective solar panels, notes Friend.

"The problem with solar cells today is they are too expensive because the materials used to make them are energy intensive, we have to make solar cells much cheaper," he says. "If I can part company with what we know we can do today, with the immediate horizon, and look forward to 2050 when we have reduced our carbon footprint by 80 per cent, then a lot of our electricity will come from renewable sources. And if a lot of it comes from solar cells they are going to have to be structures that use materials much more energy efficiently - probably through something like the plastic solar cell, but I can't tell you how to make it yet."

With so much yet to play for in nanotechnology, Friend argues the need for continued funding into the full spectrum from basic research towards commercialisation, and he emphasises the importance of ensuring that basic research is not lost in the race to deliver products. "Long-term investment in excellence seems to correlate with almost any measure of wealth creation," he says. "But it's an association which might be as unattractive to some as the association between lung cancer and smoking was to the tobacco industry. The proven link is not there, but the correlation of observations is."

And if you follow the line that high-quality basic research correlates with business investment, Friend argues that the critical ingredients are probably to attract bright, creative people and fund not only the applied research but also the more blue-sky endeavours.

"I think there's a need to have a continuum of excellence, where the mechanism for selection of what [ research] is done and what is not done is largely bottom up," he says.

"Governments have to be very good at not following the natural instinct to control, because top-down interference is usually not helpful. There has to be a level of background support, a real effort to make sure that an ecosystem is in place that encourages the bottom-up approach. Then if you take the long view that by managing to sustain excellence you will generate economic activity - it may be an article of faith to believe this will happen again, but I think it's a very reasonable pitch."


Manufacturing the defence

AMID THE push to build up smart and knowledge service economies, it's unusual to hear an argument in defence of manufacturing, but Prof Sir Richard Friend makes one.

"I have incredibly old-fashioned views. I fundamentally believe that manufacturing jobs are more valuable than service jobs," explains the Cavendish professor of physics from the University of Cambridge.

"It seems to me that if a group sets up a company to make something, then that creates work for lawyers, whereas if you get a load of lawyers offices it doesn't actually cause manufacturing companies to come near it."

He appreciates his views may swim somewhat against the tide as manufacturing operations move east. "This is controversial territory and I'm accused of being a Luddite, but I believe it's a serious problem for the whole of the West and they are going to have to relearn how to make things."

Friend's view may be partly explained by the success he has seen in Cambridge, a city that supports approximately 40,000 jobs in technology and supported manufacturing.

"That must generate10 times as many jobs in support services," he says.