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11 things you always wanted to know about nanoscience

24 May 2016
Millions of people interested in nanoscience

Physicists from the new Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology answered hundreds of questions about nanoscience.

University of Sydney physicists Professor David ReillyProfessor Benjamin EggletonAssociate Professor Michael Biercuk answered questions on Reddit’s askscience thread about their work at the $150m Sydney Nanoscience Hub – from quantum engineering to photonics – and reached an audience of more than 6.5 million people, with 23,900 people clicking through to read their answers.

Here is a list of some of those questions and answers.

1.      How will nanotechnology change the world?

Trying to change the world is exactly what we aim for. To my mind, one of the most profound aspects of this field of research is that we now have access to quantum phenomena that were long regarded as little more than weird mathematics. But now we know they are real and we can harness them in the laboratory.

Our work is now seeking to learn how we can harness the weird things we find in quantum physics – particles behaving like waves, entanglement, teleportation – as resources to power technology, much the way we use the flow of electricity to power our technology today.

These phenomena are largely absent in today's tech. It's all there, hidden away, but isn't being used. I like to describe this by talking about a sand pile... you may be able to understand how that sand pile behaves (how tall can it be before it falls over) and perhaps use it for something, but you totally miss all of the complexity and beauty of the individual grains of sand.

We're now able to capture and exploit the physics that comes from looking at individual quantum systems... and that's going to totally change everything. Quantum technology.

    Associate Professor Michael Biercuk

Photonics is addressing many grand challenges in health, security, energy and communications. We are building photonic chips that will provide photonic functionality on a chip that can be integrated into the smart phone. Medical instruments that sit in your doctor’s office or in the hospital can now be in your smart phone. Think about that. We are also building photonic technology that will massively enhance radio frequency / microwave processing technologies which are critically important in radar, defence and wireless communications. We have developed a microwave filter that can be used as part of a phased array antennae system – we can enhance the resolution and range of radar systems and it is also the size of a thumbnail chip.

    Professor Benjamin Eggleton 

2.      Graphene, carbon nanotubes and bucky balls are all widely reported on; which other lesser known nano-materials or nano-compounds show great promise for large scale applications?

Graphene is an amazing material. It comprises only a single atom layer. My group is very interested in how light (photons) interacts with such materials - at the nanoscale. We can put a graphene layer adjacent to an optical fibre and massively enhance the sensitivity of the fiber optic cable to the environment around it. That would make an amazing sensor. We are also putting graphene films in lasers to make faster lasers that are very useful for applications in telecommunications.

    Professor Benjamin Eggleton 

One exciting aspect of this field is that we're not relegated to traditional ‘materials’. In fact we are able to synthesise totally new materials that don't exist in nature atom-by-atom. In my group we trap single atoms in a special electromagnetic bottle called an ion trap. The ions repel each other and form crystals. That's matter synthesised from the bottom-up, one atom at a time! And it's matter over which we have total control at the quantum mechanical level. THAT is exciting.

    Associate Professor Michael Biercuk

3.      Why do you need a specifically designed facility?

The Sydney Nanoscience Hub at the University of Sydney is a research and teaching building. It was designed specifically for nanoscience: very stable, built into the side of a hill, mile from a train line and very quiet. The building is superb! We have measured vibrations and it appears to be the best nanoscience building in the world. We need this building when we make the nanoscale devices. We need a clean room that has very low particulate count etc.

    Professor Benjamin Eggleton 

4.      What are some nano technology projects we could do in a home lab environment?

This is a question that really gets at the heart of a critical issue in society today. We hear about all the innovation in technology associated with Silicon Valley startups. Apps built by teenagers in their bedrooms and the like. But what we forget is that all of the amazing software developments over the past few years are built on hardware developed over decades. Pushing further on that hardware requires extraordinary control over light and matter.

When we're working with the most fundamental constituents of matter dust, vibrations, temperature fluctuations and even ambient wi-fi signals etc kill our experiments. Working from home is just not possible. As frustrating as this might be it's really central to seeing technology continue to advance. We need to make major investments in infrastructure today that allow us to build technologies for decades to come.

But one day, as we learn more about how light and matter behave at the quantum level we hope to be able to overcome those challenging requirements and one day Quantum Tech will be as ubiquitous in a teenager's bedroom as computers are today.

    Associate Professor Michael Biercuk

5.      In terms of education/ background knowledge, what are the requirements to understanding your field?

This area is largely physics and engineering. Depending on exactly what bit you are most interested, understanding of photonics (lasers) and undergraduate physics is a must. After that, you can go down the quantum theory path, engineering laser-physics path or with a bit of chemistry and solid-state physics there is the metamaterials path.

    Professor David Reilly

6.      Do you think there could be any possible unforeseen health impacts of nanomaterials similar to asbestos?

Yes, and its important to maintain protocols that keep us safe – an active area of research. At the same time, go to the beach and take a big breath of silicon oxide nanoparticles. Our bodies have means of dealing with our environments.

    Professor David Reilly

7.      What do you have to say to a high school 10th grader looking to go into physics focused on nanoscale stuff?

Firstly, fantastic. The world needs you! Stay focused – don't mistake familiarity with understanding. Walk a line of tech skills and knowledge with creativity.

    Professor David Reilly

8.      Should we be funding more innovation? Or being smarter with innovation? What about basic research?

That's a great question. I think we have to define innovation – it's become a bit of a catch-all for any small business, research or the like.

To my mind, innovation isn't figuring out how to sell existing products or services using a mobile application. Innovation is about doing things that are completely new to humanity that also serve to make lives better.

So how do we support that? The facts are very clear. According to the Office of the Chief Scientist in Australia, 26 percent of current economic activity comes from the direct or flow-on effects of scientific discoveries made over the past 20–30 years. So to my mind if we want to truly innovate, improve lives, and drive prosperity our best bet is to invest in advanced research.

    Associate Professor Michael Biercuk

9.      Aside from faster internet and high tech labs how are you hoping to change the world with this technology?

Photonics is addressing many grand challenges in health, security, energy and communications. We are building photonic chips that will provide photonic functionality on a chip that can be integrated into the smart phone. Medical instruments that sit in your doctor’s office or in the hospital can now be in your smart phone. Think about that. We are also building photonic technology that will massively enhance radio frequency / microwave processing technologies which are critically important in radar, defence and wireless communications. We have developed a microwave filter that can be used as part of a phased array antennae system - we can enhance the resolution and range of radar systems and it is also the size of a thumbnail chip.

    Professor Benjamin Eggleton 

10.  What do you think about the huge loss of potential due to the perception of low employability as science graduates in Australia? What is your advice to people who want to apply themselves in their passion of science and scientific thinking but don't want to chance themselves in a science degree in Australia?

My view is that this is a myth that is persistent and unfounded. There are tons of jobs available for scientists from finance through to academia. Science-trained graduates are broadly in demand.

But more importantly training in science gives you a fantastic way of viewing the world that can help you start your own business or just engage with life.

I worry that in many circles being a professor is perceived as the only acceptable aim in pursuing scientific education. That's not healthy at all. If one focuses only on being an academic then the process is very competitive and few will arrive at the top tier of tenured academic positions.

But that's not very different from aiming to be a professional athlete where again competition is high and few end up in the top tier. Despite that our society encourages young men and women to pursue their dreams even if the chance of reaching stardom is so remote. Why do we become so risk averse when it comes to careers in science?

The future is yours to make. There are jobs and you can also develop your own path. If you're passionate, driven, and excellent you will rise to the top. Don't listen to the naysayers!

    Associate Professor Michael Biercuk

11.  I was wondering what the University of Sydney is doing to improve diversity in Physics? In particular, how are you working to improve the presence of women in higher levels (postdoctorate researchers, professors) in Physics?

It's an important question. A lot of the research in this topic shows that the major bottleneck comes at the transition to junior faculty positions. That is, the point when scientists are striking out to establish independent careers. This also coincides with the time when many people are starting families leading to a huge drop-off in the number of women in the career track.

My view is we need to do much more to support women right at this stage. Locally we are advocating for and establishing a new childcare subsidy system for female postdocs in our quantum science groups. We want to make it easier for women to succeed in the career path and not feel like they have to choose between a career and family because childcare is so unbelievably expensive.

    Associate Professor Michael Biercuk

Read all their answers on Reddit’s AskScience

 

 

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