Thursday, February 22, 2007

Nanotechnology research

Dr. Robert Sinclair was honored with a symposium at Stanford University last week, to celebrate thirty years in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the university. The list of symposium speakers, comprised mainly of former students, demonstrates the impact that Professor Sinclair has had on the field of electron microscopy:

James Wittig – Vanderbilt University
Gary Michal – Case Western Reserve
Mary Kay Hibbs-Brenner – VIXAR
Fernando Ponce – Arizona State University
Alan Pelton – NDCUS
Velimir Radmilovic – National Center for Electron Microscopy
Martha Mecartney – University of California Irvine
Edward Goo – University of Southern California
Tom Yamashita – Komag
Alan Schwartzman – Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Warren MoberlyChan – Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Thomas Nolan – Seagate Technology
Gerardo Bertero – Komag
Toyohiko Konno – Tohoku University
Subhash Shinde – Sandia National Laboratory
Brian Morfitt – Frazier Heath Care
Katherine Walker – Blum Capital Partners
Peter Rigby – Royal Cancer Hospital

As the department detailed, Professor Sinclair's students have gone on to use electron microscopy for development of structure-property relationships at major universities, both national and international, as well as in industrial research laboratories.

My interview with him a few months ago dicussed nanotechnology research. That discussion, is posted here in (audio) .mp3 and available below.

LP: Dr. Sinclair, what do you see as some of the challenges or barriers to nanotechnology development?

RS: I think that the government agencies have been very good at sponsoring very innovative, kind of groundbreaking research at the universities.

LP: I am sure Stanford feels that way, in particular?

RS: And the competitive universities like Berkeley and MIT and so on. But it is necessary to make sure that that funding is at a consistent level so that young professors can express their ideas and bring them to fruition rather than having to be cautious because the funding may only last a certain amount of time, before they all achieve their goals.

LP: Right, they have to be selective about the approach that they use and the testing that they might do -- things that are not going to better help them and grow of their research.

RS: I think we want to encourage the universities, in particular, to be as innovative as possible so that they come up with the ideas which then could be commercialized either by the faculty and the student setting up a small company themselves or a larger company taking all that responsibility to bring it into a commercial product. And another aspect which is of real concern happens to involve the equipment that it takes through to do this research. This equipment is becoming increasingly expensive.

LP: I imagine so.

RS: And what one finds is that the equipment particularly at the universities now is aging and is no longer state of the art, and it becomes quite expensive to buy a new piece of equipment like electron microscopes or electron beam writers which are the current best pieces of equipment available.

LP: I imagine the eBay auction cycle for those items is a little longer too.

RS: Right, eBay has a very specialized piece of equipment which one could only obtain from very highest quality manufacturers. And for some pieces of equipment, there is indeed no government mechanism now whereby the universities can obtain this equipment because their cost is a little bit too high compared to the one thing which is available. And this is becoming very national problem. Other countries have adopted a government run policy whereby they will equip some laboratories in the country to a very high level, particularly the European countries and Japan, so that they have this new piece of equipments.

LP: Do you think there is an opportunity for Japan or other Asian countries to supply American universities with up-to-date equipment?

RS: I think it's the other way around. I think that the manufacturers will provide equipment in their own countries to increase their competitiveness at the cost of American competitiveness. So this is regarded as a national problem. A study for the National Academy Sciences which we have just completed reports on this and recommends that regional centers be set up whereby researches from different institutions can share equipment, which is so expensive and which is so powerful. But unless we act soon, then the universities, in particular, will find themselves in a long competitive situation with their equivalent institutions in other countries.

LP: Who do you see as the strongest threats in these areas in the academic world right now?

RS: Well, certainly from the investments which have been made in Japan, institutions tend to be very well equipped. And Germany is making significance investment in its research infrastructure. China gradually is establishing more and more like high quality research centers, and of course the other top European countries and even the smaller countries besides Britain and France but also Belgium, Holland, Sweden and so on.

LP: But like many innovations, does the competition between countries affect progress of that technology, do you think?

RS: Definitely because science really is an international endeavor and scientists in United States are competing against each other and themselves and also with their equivalents in other countries. And that's one of the interesting things about science that international competition is recognized and is a powerful force to develop better devices.

LP: So, it's actually a positive component?

RS: If we view the competition as positive, which I think it is, within the department of technology and international competition.

LP: And we are relying on the individual integrity of people in that way.

RS: We need to rely on the individual integrity, and of course there was a very recent severe case in South Korea where it was not carried out which is very regrettable. There was the stem cell research which, the South Korean researchers were doing, the stem cell alliance but it replicated.

LP: That's interesting. What do you think, are there credible and significantly followed organizations on the international level for nanotechnology research also?

RS: I think you'll find that there is a lot of international collaboration as well as research which is carried out in an individual country, and there are many scientific conferences and scientific organizations which are international which promote that, and which I would say most scientists and technologists take advantage of. We tend to travel to other countries and to meet scientists and to discuss our data with them and find out about their data as well. So I think that international scientific communities are very healthy because they are recognized as competitive and today it's running out, I think, in a very fashion.

LP: Is working at Stanford all serious science, do you have any fun over there?

RS: Well, Stanford is a very special place. The students are very hardworking and very talented. And there is quite a different nature to the graduate students who are trying to obtain professional degree, PhD or Master of Science for instance, compared to the undergraduate students who tend to be young, of course, but also to have very many different interests besides their field of study.

LP: I know at least two Stanford drop-outs who finished a year here in and went on to build technology companies here in the valley who I worked for, for a short time, so I have seen a little bit of that around.

RS: Stanford drop-outs are the same quality as Stanford drop-ins, I talk to them.

LP: Yes they are very talented, absolutely. What other areas do we see nanotechnology?

RS: Well, I talked about the exciting research which has been carried out at the universities but also the American system has a very strong component of the national laboratories and they are making their own contributions through professional scientists. And then, of course, there is the entrepreneurial spirit in America whereby small companies are as well in pathological Nanosys, for instance. We're just trying to commercialize to do some neat and cool nanotechnology products.

LP: Where else do we see nanotechnology popping up?

RS: Well, one of the aspects which perhaps you don't know is that suntan lotion or sunscreen and the very small nanoparticles that give them color or blocking ability so they are in some products we make everyday. Nanotechnology is already present.

Dr. Sinclair is a highly graceful individual, calm yet opinionated, slightly skeptical and highly regarded by his students and colleagues. I can understand the inspiration he has contributed to his field. For a listen, go here.