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Selections from a Local Probes Meeting

by Andre on 18 January 2006

Yesterday Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter hosted a small conference on Meeting the Ultimate Challenges in Local Probes. “Local probes” was interpreted fairly broadly although most of the techniques discussed involved scanning probe microscopy in some way. There was a talk by my supervisor (Dennis Discher) on single molecule AFM that briefly discussed our current efforts in developing a hybrid AFM-fluorescence microscope and one by a collaborator (Yale Goldman) on single molecule fluorescence applied to biology which I naturally enjoyed. Overall I was impressed by the level of the presentations and I learned about some very interesting techniques that I was previously totally unaware of. I especially enjoyed the talk by Vinayad Dravid about their scanning near field acoustic holography technique. The reason it’s so impressive is that most AFM methods are limited to surface characterization and mechanical probing at interfaces, but by using what amounts to a microscopic ultrasound machine they were able to image buried features of a variety of samples. Their paper and a commentary are available free from their website [pdfs].

After the technical talks, there was a panel discussion with representatives from industry and funding agencies to discuss past progress and future challenges that will be faced by nanotechnology in an international context.

Mike Roco from the NSF is closely involved with the National Nanotechnology Initiative. He talked about the four overlapping stages of nanotech development from passive to active nanostructures to integrated nanosystems and ultimately to molecularly designed nanosystems. As this progression takes place biology is expected to play an increasing role as a source of inspiration and of raw materials: after all, the only known molecular nanosystems are found in biology. He also discussed how nanotech’s development in the US has exceeded the initial promise and that nanotech related bills have so far had a 100% pass rate at the federal level. This is good news but he also emphasized that the last congressional hearings he attended were focused entirely on environmental, health, and safety of nanotechnology and that if potential new technologies are going to be successful, public relations will be essential. They don’t want to make the mistakes made by those promoting genetically modified crops and other organisms.

Michael Garner from Intel discussed Intel’s interest in nanotechnology stemming from the natural consequences of Moore’s law and how researchers can impact the development of next generation integrated circuits by improving the resolution of current scanning probe techniques to detect dopants and determine their concentration and also be able to accurately correlate structure determination and location on a relatively large sample.

Craig Prater from Veeco echoed some of these same points and said instruments need to be made more economical for industry. The main point that I took away from his talk though, was his discussion of “crossing the chasm,” i.e. bridging the gap between enthusiasm for a technique amongst researchers and having that technique ultimately adopted in technologies and in industry. He pointed out that most researchers that are doing applied research do proof of concept experiments that really only get an idea 10 or 20% of the way to commercialization and that as long as this is the case, most of these ideas will never be developed further because there is still too much uncertainty about the development costs and ultimate payoffs for a hand-off to industry. He argued that by understanding the business problems that your research might ultimately solve you will be more likely to have your technology adopted. During the discussion the main argument against this from the audience was that researchers are unlikely to get funding for this type of development because they are used to applying to places like NSF and NIH that support basic research but not technology development. It may be possible to start a company to commercialize technology, but is not something that most researchers are familiar with or necessarily want to do. Prater acknowledged these problems but maintained that keeping the ultimate potential uses of a technology in mind during its early development will enable researchers to get it closer to industry adoption even with the current level of funding. The fact that most researchers are developing new probes for specific research problems was also suggested as an impediment to this kind of progress.

Finally, Scott McNeil, director of the Nanotechnology Characterization Lab talked about the lab’s work on bridging the same gap from the medical perspective. In particular, he talked about the lab’s development of standards for testing new nanotech based therapies to help get prototypes to the point where an application can be made to the FDA for clinical trials. I won’t go in to any detail because they have an extensive site outlining their objectives.

If you have some more questions about the detailed discussion of these issues just leave a comment and I’ll flesh it out a bit.

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