How small science will have a big impact on Ireland’s economic future

26 Nov 2009

From miracle drugs to super-tiny computers, Ireland could win its share of a $3-trillion industry.

CAR paint that doesn’t scratch but keeps its colour. Glasses that darken depending on the quality of light. Computers that can be printed.

These things may sound like science fiction, but they are in fact very real products of the future due to the convergence of electronics and biopharmaceuticals into an exciting new area known as nanoscience.

What is nanoscience?

Nanoscience, or nanotechnology, is a discipline of science where materials are studied at very small dimensions of less than 100 nanometres. One nanometre is one billionth of a metre – a human hair is 50,000 nanometres in width.

This is electronics and pharmaceuticals at an atomic scale and could bring about a consumer and business revolution we have only dreamed about until now. However, for many of the leading lights of Ireland’s scientific and industrial community, this opportunity is no fiction.

According to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Ireland has more than 500 companies – multinational and indigenous – employing circa 130,000 people in ICT, medical devices and biopharmaceuticals.

Facts and figures

These firms use nanotechnology for continued product innovation and competitiveness. Of the €150 billion in goods and services exported by Ireland in 2008, it is estimated that 10pc or €15 billion were enabled by nanoscience and related nanotechnologies. By 2015, these nanotech exports could reach €30 billion in value.

Globally, nanotechnology enables nearly $250 billion worth of products and this is on track to exceed $3 trillion in 2015. Next week, all the stakeholders in nanoscience in Ireland will hold Nanoweek to wake the country up to the opportunities.

New materials are being discovered all the time. For example, in electronics new materials in plastic and industrial diamond are being sought to replace silicon in order to keep up with Moore’s Law, which says the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years. In the Seventies, there were 2,000 transistors on one piece of silicon; today there are more than two million.

In pharmaceuticals, new drugs are being pioneered using a combination of electronics, metals and drugs. A tiny gold-plated drug for cancer is being developed, allowing the drug to be guided magnetically into a cancerous tumour.

Keeping up

For Leonard Hobbs, engineering research manager at Intel Ireland, the challenge is to put the company’s operations here at the forefront of keeping up with Moore’s Law. “In the next 15 years, silicon as a material will run out of steam and we are looking at alternative materials. This means going through the entire Table of Elements. At the moment, the most advanced chips are made at a scale of 32 nanometres. Into the future, you could be looking at chips made at a scale of -10 nanometres.”

Hobbs has been one of the lead instigators behind efforts to ensure Ireland captures its share of this exciting new frontier. Having spent €8 billion on its science infrastructure over the past decade, Ireland needs to shrewdly take the right bets on the future, and he believes nanoscience is one of them.

One of Hobbs’ suggestions is the creation of a nanofabrication facility. Another initiative that can be embarked on is to build a network and establish close co-operation between industry and researchers in universities.

“We need to convert Ireland’s investment in science into useful technology. Nanotech is an advanced technology – it is a challenging technology, but not beyond the realms of possibility to achieve,” he explains.

Building a nanoscience infrastructure

There has been some momentum in establishing nanoscience infrastructure. Tyndall National Institute recently opened a new €47.8-million research facility that will drive Ireland’s ambitions in the area of nanoscale semiconductor research. Tyndall will also house the State-funded Competence Centre for Applied Nanotechnology, an industry-led research initiative involving some of the world’s leading companies such as Intel, Seagate, Medtronic and Analog Devices, plus Irish companies Aerogen, Audit Diagnostics, Creganna and Proxy Biomedical.

Recently, HP and the Trinity College Dublin-based Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) embarked on a €3.7-million research initiative that will heavily influence the future of ultra-light TV and computer screens.

Among the projects CRANN will work on is Imagine, a television screen that operates like a blind. It can be rolled down when needed and rolled up when not in use.

According to Dr Diarmuid O’Brien, executive director of CRANN, nanotechnology will affect product innovation in virtually every field of manufactured goods. CRANN has more than 200 researchers working with players such as Intel, HP and Boston Scientific.

ICT success

The key is translating Ireland’s success in ICT, medical devices and pharmaceutical manufacturing and winning more research activities. “In Cork, we have nine out of 10 of the world’s top bio-pharma companies. But most of this activity is in manufacturing and sales. The first step to capturing the industries of tomorrow is to make Ireland a viable place to do this kind of research.”

O’Brien says there are also major opportunities for indigenous firms, and some Irish companies are already leading the charge such as University College Dublin spin-out NTERA, which is using nanostructures to develop future display screens, while Proxy Biomedical is developing smart bandages to allow improved healing.

One indigenous company that could prove to be a luminary in nanoscience is Galway-based Creganna, a 550-strong firm that transformed itself from a maker of steel enclosures in the Nineties to a sophisticated designer and maker of proximal catheter shaft assemblies and specialty needles for some of the world’s biggest medical-device companies.

Number of employees

Michael Howe, R&D manager for Creganna, explains that today close to 7,000 people are working in the medical-devices industry in the Galway area.

“When we look at nanotechnology, we see it as vital to future medical treatments. In future, medical devices will come with sensors. For example, a diabetes patch that constantly monitors sugar levels in the body and will deliver the right amount of drugs.

“Or imagine if you could build nanoparticles like Trojan horses that would be attracted into a cancer cell. That way doctors could use nanotechnology to selectively remove cancer cells from the body.

“The current generation of medical devices don’t cure diseases, they just treat symptoms,” Howe concludes. “But in the future, because of nanoscience, companies are driving towards cures.”

Nanoweek, with nationwide events, took place 30 November-4 December. For further information, visit our site. – Digital 21 is a campaign to highlight the imperative of creating an action programme to secure the digital infrastructure and services upon which the success of the economy depends.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years