Nanotech in the Negev: Israeli scientists see big opportunity in tiny tech

Ben-Gurion University's Dr. Yuval Golan sees nanotechnology bringing big advances to IT, medicine, materials science, and more.

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. 

By Brian Taylor

Brian Taylor is a contributing writer for TechRepublic. He covers the tech trends, solutions, risks, and research that IT leaders need to know about, from startups to the enterprise. Technology is creating a new world, and he loves to report on it.