Micro-managing a €2.5trn economic opportunity is no small beer

5 Jun 2013

There are people to whom nanoscience – building technologies and drugs at an atomic or molecular level to around one billionth of a metre or 1m times smaller than a grain of salt – is science fiction and not a very real industry. But nanoscience is a very real industry.

In fact, most products today, such as the paint on cars, the coating on a painkiller or the microprocessors and hard drives sitting inside a computer, are the results of painstaking research and manufacturing at an atomic level.

Nanoscience pervades a considerable chunk of Ireland’s economy today, supporting manufacturing and research for 70pc of technology multinationals based in Ireland.

Future Human

According to the boffins at the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN), nanoscience is linked to 10pc or €15bn of Ireland’s annual exports and is responsible for more than 250,000 jobs.

In addition, rather than Ireland hosting innovations conceived elsewhere, this country is actually setting the scene for some the biggest breakthroughs in terms of the materials that will exist in future products, like computers, phones, clothing, cars and drugs.

Two organisations in Ireland – CRANN at Trinity College Dublin and the Tyndall Institute at University College Cork (UCC) – are playing a driving role in helping technology giants like Intel and IBM decide the future direction of their products. Not only that, but these two institutes are a vital source of workers for leading technology giants.

In the past week ]May 27[, CRANN, which has grown from six researchers to 300 researchers in just 10 years, marked its 10th anniversary by etching the world’s smallest birthday cake onto a coin at 500 nanometres, which is 2,000 times smaller than a grain of salt.

In addition, the Tyndall Institute, which counts more than 460 researchers and 134 students, signed a new three-year contract worth €1.5m with Intel that will give the chip giant access to new technologies developed by researchers there.

In recent years, the Tyndall Institute achieved a number of world’s firsts, including the world’s first implantable radiation detector, the world’s first junctionless transistor, and the world’s fastest fibre-to-the-home network demonstrator, to name a few.

Living in a material world

The key to most of the nanoscience breakthroughs that CRANN and Tyndall will work on will centre on new materials, such as graphene, a new lightweight but durable metal into which the EU has ploughed €1bn worth of investment, as well as areas like magnetics and photonics.

Ireland’s policy advisory board for enterprise and science, Forfás, estimates thenanotech market to be worth US$2.5trn and could result in 20,000 additional manufacturing jobs in Ireland.

Speaking at the renewal of the contract between Tyndall and Intel, Dr Mike Mayberry, corporate vice-president of Intel’s Technology and Manufacturing Group, said the collaboration involved focusing on atomic-scale microelectronics to photonics.

“I grew up reading science fiction, but now my job involves turning science into production,” Mayberry said, outlining his role in terms of keeping Moore’s Law on track by discovering newer ways to squeeze transistors and circuits into Intel chips. Moore’s Law is the abiding principle at Intel whereby every 24 months the number of transistors on a chip doubles.

One of the key areas of interest to companies like Intel is a new discovery by Peter O’Brien and Brad Snyder from Tyndall of a much sought-after industry solution for an optical fibre connector for silicon nano-photonics. The solution has been named as a runner up in the Innovation of the Year competition at UCC

Just like with existing communications networks where slower copper cables are being replaced by fibre optics, hardware makers want to replace copper within chips with silicon photonics based on fibre optics.

“We take a very great interest in new materials that help us to go beyond Moore’s Law,” Mayberry said. “Our goal would be to get silicon photonics chips to work on a reliable basis in data centres on servers and showing that basic proof of feasibility is important.”

As well as progressive work in the area of new materials like graphene at CRANN in Dublin, groups are also engaged in developing magnetic systems that will transform how memory works in computers.

Magnetic effects

Prof Mike Coey, a principal investigator at CRANN, is working on materials for non-volatile memory systems called MRAM (magneto-resistive random access memory) that could make boot-up times a thing of the past as computers scramble to remember their exact state the last time they were switched off.

He said every person in 2013 comes in contact with 100bn magnets on a daily basis, everything from the magnet on a fridge door to all the magnets contained on servers in data centres as a consumer conducts a Google search or interacts on Facebook.

“There were 20 exabytes of data stored magnetically on machines last year, which is more information than previously existed in the entire history of mankind,” Coey said.

“The human race makes more transistors and magnets in fabrication facilities than the number of grains of rice or wheat grown in fields every year.”

Coey said the work of research operations like CRANN feed into the thinking of technology giants like Intel and help them to decide their technological direction for the next 10 years. Intel would have employees based as researchers in residence at CRANN.

“They are keen to learn what is going on in nanotechnology and what the issues are when producing materials that may feature in future products.

“Once they decide to develop the technologies in-house that’s when the shutters come down because it becomes commercially sensitive when they compete in the market against rivals like Samsung or Hitachi.

“Our role is to help them know what’s going to be happening in the future and it’s then up to them to develop the technologies in-house on a proprietary basis,” Coey said.

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 2 June

Nanotechnology image via Shutterstock

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