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Forget Bond: come inside the nanotech lair which beats anything by Q

3rd Dec 12 9:04 am

The London Centre for Nanotechnology gives us the deluxe tour

Rudyard Kipling once said there was nothing so evocative as closing your eyes and uttering the word “India”.

The same might be said today of the word “nanotech”.

It is a scientific field where astonishing breakthroughs seem to happen every week. Investors drool at the word’s very utterance.

Nanotech is the science of manipulating matter at the atomic level.

Legend has it that nanotech will produce quantum computers capable of unimaginable advances over traditional silicon. Equally fantastical, that nanotech will allow the creation of invisibly small robots – causing Prince Charles to worry that humans would supplanted by a race of self-replicating micro-machines, ending in a “grey goo” apocalypse.

Medicines will intelligently target morbid areas, leaving the rest of the body unscathed. A fortnight ago, a Chicago university announced it was using nanoparticles to halt multiple sclerosis and cure type one diabetes.

“Like a cross between Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and Q’s lair in James Bond”

The Russians are obsessed by nanotech. The Russian government has invested $4.3 billion in the state-owned investment vehicle Rusnano, with a remit to take a world lead in nanotech. The goal is to fund projects with $29bn revenue by 2015.

Yet the epicentre of the nanotech world sits a few hundred yards from Euston Station. Located on Gordon Street is the London Centre for Nanotechnology. It’s an eight-story building housing more than a hundred top-flight scientists.

Its reputation is formidable. It’s the place where magnetricity was first observed . Magnetricity is where magnetic charges flow like electricity.

LCN scientists are working on a genome technique which would allow a DNA to be sequenced in minutes. The first genome took ten years.

But what, I wondered, really goes on in there?

How the blazes do you manipulate matter at the atomic level? If you want to move one atom then what do you move it with? Another atom? My degree in medieval history is no help here.

And what of the scientists who lurk within– are they making millions for themselves?

I pinged an email cheekily asking for a tour.  And, lo, the business director Dr Tania Saxl immediately responded in the affirmative.

When I meet her on the top floor of the LCN, Saxl is bursting with enthusiasm. “We love showing people round,” she trills. “The tour is great. There’s so much to see. You’ll love it.”

Spoiler: she’s right.

The tour is mind-bogglingly good. Like a cross between Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and Q’s lair in James Bond.

Even using the stairs is an adventure. The steel staircase is weirdly bouncy. “The building is purpose built to be vibration proof,” explains Saxl. “The staircase doesn’t touch the rest of the building to insulate it. That’s why it’s a bit odd.”

On each floor there are labs filled with bizarre machines. “You can’t see anything on the nanoscale with normal light microscopes as nanostuff is smaller than the wavelength of light,” says Saxl. “That means you need various bits of kit to study at the nanoscale which tend to be huge. There is a standing joke of needing something giant to see something teeny tiny.”

We enter a lab. It houses several largish brushed-steel machines which are buzzing away.

One of the scientists, Dr Rob Edgington, fills me in.

“This machine is used to grow diamonds. It is a glorified microwave called a Microwave Plasma-Enhanced Chemical Vapour Deposition machine. Microwaves are generated here in a magnetron. Except instead of 800W like at home, it is in the thousands of Watts. The waves get redirected into this chamber where we have low pressure gases of hydrogen and methane. The microwaves zap it into a glowing plasma and you grow diamonds atom by atom, in a Tetris kind of approach with carbon atoms. “

Microwave Plasma-Enhanced Chemical Vapour Deposition machine

Microwave Plasma-Enhanced Chemical Vapour Deposition machine

These artificial diamonds are highly versatile. “We are using them in applied fields. A lot of these revolve around vision, such as restoring vision using retinal implants, and making night vision goggles.”

Retinal implant in a rat's eye

Source: LCN

Retinal implant in a rat’s eye

Diamonds are also inert, so they can be implanted in the body without being rejected. Rob continues to list applications, but I suffer a comprehension lapse around the moment he talks of growing neurons on diamonds. Should you wish to know more you will be delighted to learn the LCN runs regular talks to explain the commercial and scientific potential of their research, including the jaw-dropping uses of diamonds.

The tour continues. We enter a room devoted to nanomechanical sensors. These are used to detect diseases such as HIV in the field or in doctors’ surgeries.

We poke our heads into other rooms, each home to esoteric research. We find three researchers staring at graphs on a computer screen.

I am told: “We use atomic force microscopes to image biomolecular samples. We have been working on DNA. We were the first to see the double helix in a liquid. It is a very beautiful image [see below, image (d)]”.

DNA Double Helix image

Atomic force microscopy data of DNA, compared to a model of the double-helix structure.

Such is the expertise at the  LCN that it builds its own atomic force microscopes, among the most powerful in the world.

Alas, I have little chance of understanding the hardware being used, but I’m keen to understand more about the way the centre is run.

For example, are the scientists getting rich?

“Please don’t touch that machine. I’ve just balanced one atom on top of another, and you might disturb them”

“Not that I know of”, says Saxl. “The scientists have one day a week to do consulting, so some will make money that way. Others will make money be being named on patents and royalties through licensing. “ Much of the work at the LCN is funded by commercial partners who fund research. In this case the scientist will have their own commercial agreement.

Then Saxl says something rather sweet.

“The impression I get, and I might be living in cloud cuckoo land, is that people want to help British industry. We are doing that by giving firms cutting edge technology. We really want to see British industry be successful, so sometimes these collaborations are really beneficial for industry. We get funding for our overheads.

“Because we are funded by the British government we want to give back to the British economy. “

Noble stuff!

The main source of funding is the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, supplemented by private sector contracts. Firms such as the German firm Linde and Lockheed Martin,  the US aerospace firm with $40 billion annual re
venues, with whom the LCN has just signed a memorandum of understanding, are heavily involved in commissioning and funding research.

Saxl explains these firms will notice a piece of research, then contact the scientist responsible and fund further work. The LCN also applies for grants. “We often make joint grant applications with companies, for example with Qualcomm, Oxford Instruments and Toshiba Research,” reports Saxl.

Scientists can also take their inventions private. Cella Energy, which makes hydrogen fuel cells, and Endomagnetics, which uses magnetic markers to identify lymph nodes for cancer treatment, are two nano-spinouts from the LCN.

The tour takes us past the Clean Room. I’m not allowed in. Through the windows I can see people wandering out about in cleanroom suits (known as “bunny suits”). Outside a network of pipes runs up the walls.

“Those supply 65 toxic gases to the clean room” remarks Saxl. She boasts that the Clean Room can be used by anyone, and is cheap.

The Cleanroom's network of pipes

The Cleanroom’s network of pipes

But there’s one bit I really want to see – the famed quantum computing department.

Quantum computing is the motherlode of nanotech research. It harnesses the utterly bizarre principles of quantum physics to create chips of unimaginable power.

My timing was perfect. A meeting had been scheduled in Buckingham Palace to bring together government, academia and the private sector to discuss the commerical potential of quantum technology.

Saxl takes me to meet John Morton, one of the leading lights in LCN’s quantum department. On his desk sits a bust of Democritus, who first theorised the atom. Like all the researchers I meet, he radiates enthusiasm for his work. 

Rather blushing, I tell him I need quantum computing explaining to me. I am faintly aware of some of the ideas at work… such as the mind-bending notion that particles can be in two places at the same time (super-position) and in two states at the same time (wave-particle duality).

“Conventional computers store information as ones and zeros,” says Morton. “Something is either a zero or a one. When we put things into a quantum system it can be a zero and a one at the same time. So a quantum computer can run computations in parallel. It both assumes the input was zero and assumes the input was 1. Now if you take ten of these quantum bits they can be in a thousand different states at the same time. And so now your computer is running a thousand different calculations at once. And this process is known as quantum computing. It has applications for a huge range of areas. It can be used to solve problems which are impractical using current computers.”

Lockheed Martin is just one of the firms keen to partner with LCN on developing quantum computing.

Lockheed Martin is famous for making fighters such as the F22 Raptor

Lockheed Martin is famous for making fighters such as the F22 Raptor

Morton says it’s an area with a wide spread of private sector interests. “Hitachi has an active quantum computing research operation. So do Nokia, Microsoft and NEC. We in the UK want to be at the forefront, which is why we are going for this meeting at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Duke of York. The overall goal is, when a quantum Silicon Valley forms, it forms in the UK.”

There is competition. “$100m has been invested in Singapore, and double that in Canada and Korea. There is this level of investment because they can see the potential.”

The tricky bit is that the LCN is bursting at the seams. Morton acknowledges this: “But before the LCN was built they said there was no space.” Clearly, with so much as stake, somewhere will be found.

I can’t describe all the things I saw on the tour. Some baffled me. One researcher broke off from explaining his research of doping silicon wafers to say: “Please don’t touch that machine. I’ve just balanced one atom on top of another, and you might disturb them.”

Was he joking? I don’t think so.

Something the tour made clear to me is the reason LCN is so strong is its dual focus on both pure research and commercial translation of that work. The presence of private sector firms brings a sense of urgency and purpose (and cash!), and the focus on pure research ensures the flow of breakthroughs won’t dry up.

Saxl says she can’t reveal most of the private sector firms involved with the LCN (“confidential” she says with a disappointed shrug). She even requests that I keep the layout of the LCN secret: “For security reasons. We had a bomb threat a few years ago.”

What I can tell you is that the LCN wants to be contacted by companies and private equity. It already gets a regular flow of visits from politicians from China, Russia, France and our own government who are keen to see what goes on here.

“If you came, and came back four months later, you’d find loads of new stuff” promises Saxl.

What I’ve already seen has been an eye-opener.

The plain fact is that the London Centre for Nanotechnology is at the eye of a very powerful storm.

You are going to be hearing an awful lot about it in the future.

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