One leg in science and other in gizmos

By Peter Griffin

He's built a career in a particularly hard field of science but nanotechnology pioneer Dr Don Eigler is quick to see the light side of his work.

"One of the coolest things I've ever done in my life is let an 8-year-old girl move atoms," says the physicist and senior member of IBM Research.

Eigler's science is carried out on a nano scale - the dimensions of the materials he works with measure a billionth of a metre, 100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

Nanotechnology isn't a new science, but the field has only really attracted mainstream attention in recent years as companies have caught on to its vast commercial implications in everything from medicine to alternative energy sources.

Eigler's early work in nanotechnology resulted in one of the most striking images in science - the letters I-B-M spelled out with atoms.

"We got over our logo and graffiti days," he laughs.

But Eigler not only shifted the atoms into place in IBM's lab back in 1989, he built the microscope that allowed him to do so. By cooling down the atoms to four degrees above absolute zero, he put them in a state where they were nearly motionless. He then used the needle of his microscope to position the individual atoms in place.

"My colleagues were flipped out by it," says Eigler, who before joining IBM Research in 1986 worked at Bell Labs.

"As a scientist, you're lucky if three or four times in your life you do something important in the world of science."

Shifting those atoms with the microscope was one of those moments.

Since then there have been further breakthroughs from Eigler's group - an electrical switch whose only moving part is a single atom and development of an electron trap, the "quantum corral" which hems electrons into the dimensions of possible future devices.

At IBM, Eigler has "one leg in science, one leg in gizmos".

The nanotechnology work undertaken by the research division has wide-ranging applications, but Eigler's chief concern is its application to the computer industry.

"We are coming up against some hard limits. The next level takes an awful lot of effort.

"Nanotechnology allows computation in entirely new ways to continue the march of our industry."

Apart from the US, international nanotechnology hotspots include Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Britain, Japan and, increasingly, China.

But can New Zealand make a dent in the global nanotechnology market?

Eigler says it's a question many heads of state of "not very large countries" have asked him.

"So much of the enabling technology in nanotechnology does not require an expensive infrastructure," he points out.

"The space for innovation is gigantic. All that's required is the idea and the intellectual capacity."

Which means New Zealand companies could become serious players in nanotechnology, particularly if they form global partnerships to commercialise the technology developed in their labs.

The country's first nanotechnology start-up company, Christchurch-based Nano Cluster Devices, has done just that, forming a joint venture with a US company to bring to market its technology for forming clusters of atoms into electrically conducting wires.

Spun out of the University of Canterbury, NCD is led by Dr Simon Brown and last month received a $582,000 grant to develop its hydrogen sensors.

The bulk of nanotechnology research is undertaken by universities, several of which are members of the MacDiarmid Institute, which co-ordinates research in the field.

Eigler is visiting MacDiarmid facilities on his visit here and there are good prospects for repeat visits. A keen sailor, Eigler has brought his 18m boat to New Zealand and plans to keep it here for a few years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into nanotechnology in the US, but after an initial splurge of private funding, investment levels remain modest in comparison to the more mature IT industry.

A self-confessed "gizmologist", Eigler is excited at the future nanotechnology holds for everything from the computer to the car industry.

"So many people have the opportunity to do things so much better than they've been done before," he says.

But it is advancements in medicine that he considers the most important.

"The medical stuff has an emotional component.

"Everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer."

Eigler also points to the work of his friend Sam Stupp. He and colleagues at Chicago's Northwestern University have found a way to repair the damaged spinal cords of paralysed rats using a solution containing nano-particulates.

"Not all of these things will transfer to humans, but they're important developments," Eigler says.

Will nanotechnology make our lives better? Eigler is in no doubt. "It's slam dunk for sure."

Don Eigler

Next big thing: Electronics embedded in humans. "The next big thing is a small thing, your grandmother is going to become a borg."

Favourite gadget: iPod Nano (naturally).

Alternative career: Loves teaching, so probably an academic position.

Spare time: Sailing, restoring cars, building things (tree houses included), training dogs.

Favourite sci-fi movie: Buckaroo Bonzai.

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