Small wonders

20 April 2016

Nanotechnology has the potential to transform how we live. At the newly opened Nanoscience Hub, researchers are working at the atomic scale with its very different laws of physics to advance idea like quantum computing and super-light metals.

The Nanoscience Hub has yellow light in the clean room

A revolution is unfolding in nanoscience and nanotechnology. This is where researchers work at the scale of the nanometre – one billionth of a metre or roughly the size of 10 atoms - to create previously unheard of technologies.

At the exceedingly small nanoscale, the very properties of light and matter that we all know are significantly different, offering researchers opportunities to turn science fiction into science fact.

Imagine a world where diamonds help cure cancer, aircraft are super light and water is used as fuel.

Launched in April 2016, the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at the University of Sydney has been designed to meet the supremely exacting needs of nanoscience research.

Floors are decoupled from the building to create a stable environment for high-precision measurements; air-conditioning gives exact temperature stability and humidity control; air flow is imperceptible so it doesn’t affect experiments; and laboratories are electromagnetically shielded so there’s no interference either from outside or from the building’s wiring.

We spoke to six University researchers who are already making big breakthroughs at the nanoscale.

Future Fuel

Professor Thomas Maschmeyer (BSc ’91 PhD ’95) is the Director of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (AINST). He is an experimental chemist investigating how to selectively speed up (catalyse) chemical reactions.

Soon everyone will want a battery powered house. The work of Maschmeyer and his team means houses can be built with fast-charging batteries as part of their structure, ready to take advantage of rapidly improving solar energy technology.

We have people with expertise in physics, chemistry, engineering and the medical sciences all working together in this amazing new building.
Thomas Maschmeyer

“The starting point is faster, cheaper, zinc-bromine batteries,” Maschmeyer says. “But we’ve filled the batteries with a nanostructured gel instead of the usual liquid.”

This world-leading innovation makes batteries that are more robust. The gel is even fire retardant, so no wonder the building industry is excited.

Maschmeyer and his team are also designing nanoparticles to convert waste biomass into biofuels, and nanostructures to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using solar energy so the hydrogen can be used as fuel – perhaps the ultimate green power.

When he’s not in the lab, Maschmeyer is busy as the Director of AINST. “We have people with expertise in physics, chemistry, engineering and the medical sciences all working together in this amazing new building,” he says. “It’s purpose-built, with the tightly controlled conditions we need to do our work.”

Quantum Leap

The Hub is one of five such facilities in the world

Associate Professor Michael J Biercuk is the Director of the Quantum Control Laboratory. He’s an experimental physicist working to develop a new generation of technologies powered by quantum physics.

“We’re studying nature at the most fundamental levels, and exploring how to control systems obeying the strange laws of quantum physics,” Biercuk says. “We hope to build technologies that use quantum effects, much like we power today’s technology with the flow of electricity.”

The potential is largely unknown. Working at the edge of knowledge is exciting to physicists such as Biercuk and his team, and the applications already identified are powerful.

“We’re working to develop special-purpose quantum computers known as quantum simulators, with immense computational potential,” Biercuk says. “With just 300 interacting quantum particles we would need a supercomputer larger than the known universe to match it.”

But this is only one idea. “Quantum mechanics underpins smartphones and global positioning,” he says. “But so much more is possible if we learn to harness quantum physics fully.”

The Quantum Control Laboratory is the scene of experiments at the atomic level that are enabling new discoveries about how we can coax weird quantum systems into performing useful tasks.

“These are insights with scope to change the world,” Biercuk says.

Diamond Days

Professor David Reilly is the Director of the Quantum Nanoscience Laboratory. He’s an experimental physicist working at the interface of quantum science and nanoscale hardware systems.

Aligning the polarisation of individual atoms inside a synthetic diamond is the very definition of a painstaking process. But Reilly and his team are motivated by the possibility that it could revolutionise the early detection of cancer and the management of treatment.

“The process is called hyperpolarisation,” Reilly says. “And when you do that to nanodiamonds, they give off a signal that can be detected inside the human body by using a standard magnetic resonance imaging machine (MRI).

“Attaching these hyperpolarised nanodiamonds to molecules that are drawn to cancer cells means an MRI can see cancers at a very early stage, before they become life threatening. Because nanodiamonds are non-reactive and largely non-toxic, they are also of great interest for delivering chemotherapy drugs.

“We’re effectively tackling a pharmaceutical problem with physics.”

With such promising early breakthroughs, nanodiamonds might one day become part of the oncologist’s toolkit.

Clear Diagnosis

Professor Zdenka Kuncic (BSc ’92) is the Director of Community and Research, AINST. She is a physicist whose work lies at the interface between physics and the life sciences.

“Entangled particles” is such a tricky quantum idea it even challenged Albert Einstein. He called it “spooky action at a distance”. But Kuncic and her team are exploring how it can be used to create a new generation of medical scanning technology.

“Very basically, entangled particles are connected even when they’re far apart,” Kuncic says. ”It’s a bizarre concept but it could help us move well beyond the current medical technology of PET scans.”

Positron emission tomography (PET) already detects quantum particles to trace out a picture of organs and tissues at work in the body. Kuncic and her team are looking for a way to use the entanglement of these particles to achieve a level of detail in PET scans that could revolutionise the detection, diagnosis and treatment of disease.

As the Director of Community and Research at AINST, Kuncic is keenly aware of how valuable the new, purpose-built research space is to nanoscience research. “There is no margin for error when you’re working at the nanoscale,” she says.

Super-strong steel

Professor Simon Ringer is the Director of the Sydney Nanoscience Hub and the AINST Research and Prototype Foundry. He is a materials scientist working on the design of next-generation nanostructured materials.

It used to be a fact of steelmaking - it could be either strong or malleable. It couldn’t be both. Professor Ringer and his team are changing all that by creating what they call third-generation steels.

“It is crazy strong,” Ringer says. “But a lot more versatile. So now cars and trucks can be designed so they’re much lighter.”

Ringer is studying small groups of atoms in special architectures called atomic clusters that can create materials with remarkable properties.

His findings can be applied to the production of semiconductors for nanoelectronics, catalyst nanoparticles, and the new ultra-strong lightweight steels.

The steel innovation is significant. Reduce the weight of a car by 100kg and you reduce CO2 emissions by about six grams per kilometre and fuel usage by about half a litre of fuel per 100 km. Extrapolated globally, the potential impact would be gigatonnes of CO2 emissions, gigalitres of fuel and vast amounts of particulates that are not released into the atmosphere.

“Think back to when smog shut down Beijing,” Ringer says. “Emissions targets are being set around the world. Designing new materials at the atomic scale will help us achieve targets that are good for our lungs and good for the atmosphere.”

Light Work

Professor Ben Eggleton (BSc ’93 PhD ’97) is the Director of the Centre for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS) and is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow. He is an experimental physicist working on creating the next generation of light-based technologies.

Your mobile phone could soon do much more than you ever thought possible. Eggleton and his team are working on technologies that could leapfrog way beyond 5G into a future of massive download capabilities that will transform mobile communication. “But that’s only a small part of the story,” Eggleton says.

Right now, the integrated circuits in phones are passive information processors and sensors. Eggleton is working to combine the capabilities of light, sound and electronics in nanoscale circuits. These circuits will be able to respond to and influence their environment.

Think of a future in which an entire medical diagnostics lab could be held in the palm of a hand. What now takes a visit to hospital could one day be done at home.

Other applications are all around us. The massive amount of equipment needed to fly an aircraft could be reduced to a tiny chip. Easy monitoring of pollutants such as carbon dioxide, methane and coal particles could change the economics of transport, mining and manufacturing.

“The nanofabrication revolution of the last decade has transformed what’s possible,” Eggleton says. “We’re looking at nationally significant outcomes.”

Written by Katynna Parry (BSc(Adv)(Hons) ’01)
Photography by Victoria Baldwin (BA ’14)

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