A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, about the length of ten hydrogen atoms placed in a row. Or, as Dr. Yuval Golan described it in a recent talk at the Illinois Science and Technology Park, a nanoparticle is roughly one-millionth the size of ant. TechRepublic spoke with Dr. Golan about the exciting world of nanotechnology, as well as the tech hub in Beer-Sheva, Israel that he and his fellow professors are helping to build.

Nanotech in a nutshell

Substances often behave differently at the nanoscale, creating interesting possibilities. Researchers around the world, including Dr. Golan and the staff at the Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology on the campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, are working to develop beneficial applications in a wide array of fields and industries.

Nanotechnology, which bridges the scientific research and engineering applications of materials at the submicron scale, “involves the harnessing of unique physical, chemical, biological properties of nanoscale substances in fundamentally new and useful ways,” according to the US Congressional Research Service (CRS). In an Aug. 29, 2012 report on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the CRS cites projections that nanotech product revenues could be as high as $3 trillion by 2015, with an attention-getting 50 percent coming from semiconductors.

Proponents of nanotech in business, science and medicine, the CRS reports, claim that nanotechnology can eventually deliver “revolutionary advances,” particularly in conjunction with information technology, biotechnology and cognitive sciences. A partial list of projected innovations includes:

  • High-density data storage systems which can house the entire Library of Congress on a sugar cube-sized device
  • Prevention and treatment technologies that can greatly reduce suffering from cancer and other deadly diseases
  • Sensors in the from of contact lenses and skin patches for monitoring diabetics’ blood sugar levels
  • Clothing shielding wearers from toxins and pathogens
  • Water purification systems providing safe and inexpensive access to clean water around the globe
  • Renewable power sources from new creation, storage and transmission technologies
  • Low-emission and energy-efficient manufacturing systems
  • Agricultural technologies that boost yields and nutritional value

In the area of computing, carbon nanotubes could replace silicon, many believe, to produce semiconductors that are faster, smaller, cheaper, and more energy efficient, thus creating less heat.

In fact, a group of Stanford researchers announced this year the world’s first carbon nanotube computer. A team working under Professors Subhasish Mitra and H.S. Phillip Wong developed a technique called “imperfection-immune design” to overcome the complexities of producing functional carbon nanotube semiconductors, and built a basic computer with 178 transistors.

Speaking of the potential for carbon nanotubes in IT, Prof. Mitra said: “…there have been very few demonstrations of complete digital systems using this exciting technology. Here is the proof.”

Israel’s culture of tech investment

Present at Dr. Golan’s Nov. 22, 2013 talk in Skokie, Ill. was Daniel Blumenthal, Deputy Consul with the Israel Trade & Economic Office in the Midwest. While we spoke, Mr. Blumenthal explained how Israel’s relative size and high level of tech activity make exporting and strong international relationships a necessity:

“Israel is a source of innovation and tremendous entrepreneurship, there are a lot of companies coming out of Israel, but no market in Israel. The country is small, only eight million people, and so the market for these companies is primarily in the US, also in Europe, and to a growing extent in India and China. But the US remains the primary market, and as a result when an Israeli company is founded, very early on in the life cycle it may need to be in the US to form partnerships that will make the technology successful.”

“There’s a long story,” he added, “of why Israel is so innovative.” Beyond market needs, one can look to the system of education, the robust research and development base, Israel’s decades’ long work with global tech companies, the level of entrepreneurship, liberal immigration policies, and the partnership between Israeli government, business and academia.

“Per capita,” said Daniel Blumenthal:

“… Israel is light years ahead of the U.S. in terms of scientific research, start up companies, and employees in the high tech sector. But not just per capita, but also one-on-one, Israel provides a significant source of innovation for companies in the U.S. The point again for Israeli companies is not to build technologies for Israel, but how to build technologies for people across the world. Most of our focus (the Trade Office) is to build relationships that will strongly develop technology.”

Although Blumenthal made the “light years” claim with a twinkle in his eye, Israeli innovation and contributions to the tech industry are impressive for a country of any size, not to mention one whose population is smaller than the City of New York. Speaking of big cities, according to the Wall Street Journal Tel Aviv beat out a list of heavyweights—London, Paris, Berlin, and Dublin—to become the tech hub of Europe.

TechRepublic’s Editor in Chief Jason Hiner published an article this fall on Israeli cybersecurity and tech innovation. He reported that Israel has the highest density of startups in the world, one for every 1,844 people, or about 2.5 times the US rate. (Call that “light years ahead” if you prefer.) The world’s biggest tech companies—Microsoft, Cisco, SAP, HP, IBM, Oracle and Facebook—run research centers there, and Israel is third in the world for venture capital activity and second for qualified scientists and engineers.

After a groundbreaking ceremony in 2007 attended by Prime Minister Olmert, the 150-acre Advanced Technologies Park (ATP) on the campus of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev opened this year. In collaboration with the Israeli government and the city of Beer-Sheva, BGU was the “founding force” behind the ATP, whose mission is to “promote technology and commercialization of cutting-edge research and innovation” through the university and its partner institutions: Soroka University Medical Center and the National Institute of Biotechnology in the Negev.

“Beer-Sheva is becoming a high-tech powerhouse in Israel,” said Mayor Ruvik Danilovich at a press conference for the opening of the ATP. In reference to America’s Silicon Valley, he added, “We will be satisfied for Beer-Sheva to be the Silicon Wadi.”

Our interview with Dr. Yuval Golan 

Also on the BGU campus is the Isle Katz Institute, where Professor Yuval Golan is director. During our interview after his Nov. 2013 presentation in the Chicago area, Dr. Golan said he would title his research as “Nanomaterials at Interfaces.”

Yuval Golan: We are working on nanotechnology at interfaces. I am emphasizing the role of interfaces in the application and the preparation of nanomaterials. Think of the device I was describing in my talk, on the layered structure for night vision. So you have an electron, you have the whole blocking layer, you have the active layer that’s absorbing radiation, the electron blocking layer, the plasmonic enhancing layer, the light-emitting device, and you have a whole lot of interfaces between these layers.

The behavior of these materials and layers will be very much governed by the interfaces. So by controlling the interfaces, orientations, roughness, composition, intermixing—all these are key issues for making a useful device. 

 

I was working at UC Santa Barbara with Jacob Israelachvili, a very famous professor in the area of interfacial science. And I am applying these fundamental studies I learned there to these applied interfaces now for understanding how these materials are talking, or interacting on both sides of the interface. So this in a nutshell is what my research is about.

What we do, first of all we prepare nanomaterials. The preparation of nanomaterials can be done in many ways. But we do nanomaterials in two distinct directions.

The first is using surfactants. So these surface-active molecules will absorb onto the growing nanoparticle and pretty much compete with the atoms that are joining in a dynamic process, compete with them and poison the surface by absorbing onto it. So what you have eventually is a nanoparticle that is coated with an organic layer that is arresting it from continuing its growth. So now you have a very delicate interplay between the growing inorganic species and these molecules that are adhering onto the surface to control the size and, no less importantly, the shape of the nanoparticle. The reason is that different crystal facets have different behaviors toward the absorption of these organic molecules.

For instance, imagine you had a particle, for which you had molecules that could absorb onto the chromatic faces. They can absorb onto this face, but they cannot absorb onto this face. Imagine you had a system like this, exactly the system I am working on. The reason is that its composition is different. Let’s say you are growing zinc sulfide, so it absorbs to zinc but not to the sulfide. So because this is a polar direction, you would have zinc sulfide alternating (he gestures). But you’re never able, because of electrical neutrality, to have zinc on both sides. There’s a requirement that if this is zinc, then this side can never be zinc. If one side is positive, then the other side has to be negative in order for it to be neutral.

So think of it as molecules of zinc sulfide joining the crystal. Now if your molecules are joining on the plasmatic faces, and on the bottom, but not on the top, it means now you have an open terminal. An open terminal is means that you’re going to be growing a wire, or a rod, as opposed to a sphere or a cube. So, by tailoring these interactions between the organic molecules and the growing nanocrystals, you can control their shape. You can make very long wires a nanometer wide, or rods.

Anisotropy is very important; you have now materials with an axis that is an optical axis. Or you can make a polarizer out of it, you can make many useful things controlling the optical properties of materials. To do all this you have to align them. Put all the rods in an aligned system, in an array, doing this also with surfactants. So, co-crystallization of surfactants, of nanoparticles, are giving you now arrays of nanomaterials with built-in anisotropy, meaning that when oriented differently they behave differently.

Now when you have an anisotropic array of materials, you have directions in which they will cast light, and other directions in which they will block light. Just as an example, if you want to have emission of polarized light. So that’s one area of activity.

The other area of activity is using organic molecules for making nanomaterials. In my research this is making thin semiconductor films from solutions. And this has very important implications. The first implication is that you don’t need an ultra-high vacuum, you don’t need very high temperatures. Everything is done in solution, in a bath. Pretty much in this cup here (he gestures) you can grow semiconductor films that are very high quality, extremely useful for applications, and the cost of the solution is nothing.

And we do a lot of beaker chemistry for growing thin films, and not only that but for growing epitaxic thin films. So we can grow on a substrate with very well-defined orientations that are governed by the substrate. The film is oriented by the crystallographic directions on the substrate.

This is a very important point. Think of commercial applications in the industry. If they need to coat this, they will always prefer to dip in a bath, wait half an hour and take it out. Rather than put it in a UHV chamber, pump it for hours, coat it, take it out—these things cost a fortune and they’re very time-consuming, as opposed to dip-coating in a solution. So we are working on these technologies, cheap ways of making semi-conductor films.

Controlling of course the size of the particles allows you also to benefit from the quantum-size effects. Now if I gave the example of colors, if you want to make a laser material, if you make the particles fairly large we get a red laser, if you make them smaller, below a given threshold, you get a green laser. If you further make them smaller you get a blue laser. So this is something that is extremely important for controlling the microstructure of these thin films, for controlling their subsequent properties.

A third area of expertise we have is working with conductive polymers. In the future, maybe five years or ten years, our cell phones and what we have in PCs will definitely be made our of plastic. There is no doubt about that. It’s going to be polymers—for emitting light, for making processors and transistors, and light-emitting diodes. All this is going to be made of plastic. We’ve been working on a specific family of conducting polymers, and mostly studying the chemical relationship between the chemical environment in which they are living, and their optical behavior.

This is important for making sensors. If you want, for instance, to sense a given substance, it can be for homeland security, if you want to sense explosives at the airport, or if you want to screen trucks for chemical or biological weapons—all these types of materials can be detected using chemical sensors. And eventually, these will be plastic sensors.

So we are working on this conductive polymer that is very sensitive to the environment. So if you put it in an acidic environment, it will have a different color from a basic environment, and so on. It’s a pretty interesting materials platform to work on. And what we’re tying to do is to modify it, to put these specially tailor-designed chemical groups for specifically identifying a given substance of interest. So this is the third area of activity that my group is working on.

TechRepublic: At Ben-Gurion University, what are the areas of nanotech activity related to information technology?

Yuval Golan: We have a startup company in the industrial park that’s working on carbon nanotubes for making supercapacitors, for information storage, for storage of electrical charge, for batteries. There’s a lot going on in that field, a lot. (Elbit Systems is funding this startup.)

Regarding other activity we have that’s related to information technology—there’s one group particularly that’s working on atom chips, making chips from cold atoms, or ion chips. This is directly related to computing. So for instance if you need a very accurate clock for computing, this is something they’re working on. The researcher’s name is Ron Folman; he is a physics professor working specifically on atom chips, manipulation of atoms with light and temperature for computing applications.

TechRepublic: What are other possible applications of nanotechnology to IT?

Yuval Golan: I don’t think this is the most fascinating aspect of nanotechnology, but I may be wrong big time. Time will tell!

TechRepublic: What do you consider the main applications of nanotechnology?

Nanomedicine is huge, including in this building (the Illinois Science and Technology Park). Another is nanomaterials—for photovoltaics, for thermoelectric materials, for chemical and biological sensors, optical sensors.

All this is making a big impact: homeland security, night vision, and energy.

Add to this water technology, nano for water technology. I didn’t mention it in my presentation, but Ben-Gurion University has an institute for water technology (Zuckerberg Institute for Water Technology http://w3.bgu.ac.il/ziwr/intro.htm ), south of the BGU main campus in Beer-Sheva. They are working on nanometric membranes, membranes that have very small pores for filtrating water and desalinating water.

Ben-Gurion University is a leader in desalination technology: taking salt water, removing the large amounts of salt and using it for drinking, agriculture and so on. This is the main issue in making special membranes for purifying water, for water treatment of various types. It can be waste, salt water, it can be desalination or regular purifiers.

And the next thing is putting nanoobjects within the membrane. So you don’t just have the small pores—you put in small metal objects or semi-conductor objects that are now actively purifying water. Here we benefit from this very aggressive chemistry associated with nanoparticles that can oxidize organics or decompose poisonous materials, especially organics. We (BGU) have quite a bit of activity in this area.

So I would say medicine, photonics and homeland security, energy, water, and materials in general—these are the five main areas of activity where nanotechnology is already making an impact.

TechRepublic: Do you think that by its nature work in nanotechnology is more interdisciplinary than other areas of research and development? I got this sense during your presentation.

Yuval Golan: Absolutely! There’s no doubt about it. So you start from the level of industry, government and academia, where cooperation is required, and I believe is a win-win situation. Because everybody benefits from the university needs, the funding, the industry needs, the expertise and the IP (intellectual property) that is generated. Of course the government wants the economy to start rolling with these projects. So I thing this cooperation with all these levels of activity is definitely beneficial and already happening.

Of course, the area is interdisciplinary—in each of these projects you have people seven, eight different departments. So each is bringing his or her expertise—it’s clearly the case where one plus one is more than two. So you put together the expertise of people and put together a project that is interdisciplinary in nature, and this is what nanotechnology is about.

TechRepublic: Because technology is becoming so universal and so humanized, I think cooperation is the broad trend. Based on what you shared today, it seems that nanotechnology is even more collaborative and interdisciplinary than other areas of technology.

Yuval Golan: That’s another thing we are working on with the interdisciplinary PhD program for the students. You know, in a university there are many glass walls. Nobody talks about these walls but they exist, between the engineering faculty and the natural sciences, for example, or between the engineering school and the medical school. Of course, everyone wants to collaborate, but there are also glass walls, and they’re very hard to cross. Sometimes the biggest victims of these glass walls are the students.

So we created this platform into which a student can be enrolled in a PhD program in nanotechnolog . It’s not in the engineering department, because—I’ll give you an example. An engineering student want to take a class in physics. He comes to the engineering secretary and he says, I need to be enrolled in that class. She says, I can’t enroll you in that class because it’s a physics class. So he goes to the physics department and the same thing happens. So it’s like a ping pong thing, nobody is able to help.

We have (in the PhD program) a dedicated staff member, and her job is to fulfill the needs of students in terms of classes. Together with the advisor, we come up with a list of classes that the student needs to take. And he or she is going to take those classes, without glass walls. We started this 2011, it’s been extremely successful. This is an area in which we have been strongly active.