Tech’s next frontier: Israel to adapt nanotechnology to its special needs

Tech’s next frontier: Israel to adapt nanotechnology to its special needs Professor Uri Sivan, works at the Technion. (Aron Heller, For TechWeekly)

HAIFA, Israel – Professor Uri Sivan wants to show Israelis that small can be beautiful. He is one of the world’s leading researchers in nanotechnology — the science of developing materials and creating machines by manipulating molecules. From his office atop Mount Carmel at the Haifa Technion, he hopes to change the way we live.

In February, the Technion, known informally as Israel’s MIT, established an $88-million U.S. centre devoted to nanotechnology. Under the leadership of Mr. Sivan, a team of more than 300 scientists are seeking to break objects down to the tiniest dimensions: One nanometre is one-billionth of a metre.

Nanotechnology involves two aspects, miniaturization and assembly. Researchers have made great strides in miniaturization. They can already utilize nano-sized objects to create sturdy constructs. The smaller things are, the cheaper they are to make. Mr. Sivan gave the example of a transistor, which is about 100,000 times cheaper to make than it was 30 years ago. Nanotechnology will take the world of mini-products to an entirely new level.

Work is already under way into products such as dent-resistant cars and featherlight tennis rackets.

But assembling these tiny elements into meaningful technologies is another matter. “We don’t have yet the strategies how to do that,” said Mr. Sivan. “We are just making the first baby steps.”

The Holy Grail of nanotechnology is something Mr. Sivan calls self-assembly. Self-assembly is the stuff of nature — microscopic cells and molecules building upon each other to create a living organism.

“The most primitive bacteria was built in a self-assembly process (and) is far more complicated than any engineering we know how to do,” said Mr. Sivan. “Now with (nanotechnology) we can start thinking about the same concepts, the same strategy that nature uses for non-biological application.”

He cites “electronic drugs,” where nano-electronics will recreate the effects of pharmaceuticals, or “self-repairing fabrics,” like a piece of clothing that will regenerate itself similarly to human skin. Scientists, he said, are envisioning computers and other machines that would not have to be programmed but instead develop on their own.

“The paradigm for nanotechnology is biology. The way biology works is you start with molecular-size building blocks and you have the information encoded in those building blocks and based on that information those objects now have to assemble themselves to form larger objects. These assemble larger objects and so on and so forth. In some way very complex constructs are built, for instance us (humans).”

The Technion is Israel’s oldest university, established in 1924, and is home to the 2004 winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Some 75 per cent of managers at Israeli high-tech companies reportedly are Technion graduates. In addition to its pioneering research the nanotechnology centre will also have an Israeli flavour, with emphasis on applications in fields of specific interest to Israelis such as water desalination, solar energy and security.

At the theoretical level, nanotechnologists explore questions about the origins of life that are not so different from those long debated by theologians, exploring how tiny objects assemble themselves into something large and functional.

“Life on the nanometre scale is completely different to life on the scale that we are familiar with — it’s a different reality,” said Mr. Sivan. “Everything meets at the nano level. All the disciplines come together. If we understand this, we will be able to do magnificent things.”