Doing big things with very tiny materials

Israel is already a world leader in the emerging field of nanotechnology, with the number of nano researchers in the country having doubled since 2002. A new nano-based copper ink technology created by Applied Nanotech. One day soon, organ transplants …

Israel is already a world leader in the emerging field of nanotechnology, with the number of nano researchers in the country having doubled since 2002.

Applied Nanotech

A new nano-based copper ink technology created by Applied Nanotech.

One day soon, organ transplants may become a thing of the past, as special growth factors based on nanotechnology help grow healthy cells in an organ to replace unhealthy ones. One day soon, nanotechnology could help reduce pollutants from internal combustion engines to next to nothing. And, one day soon, nanotechnology could provide the taste of sugar in foods, without the calories and tooth decay that currently come along with it.

It may sound like pie in the sky, but the nanotechnology revolution has arrived, and is advancing rapidly, with Israel already one of the world leaders in development and deployment of applications based on this new science, making significant contributions to the field, discovering and developing some of the most important breakthroughs.

What Internet start-ups were to the past decade, nanotechnology will be to the next one, experts say. And a host of Israeli companies have already begun to produce applications based on this new science, which allows researchers to control matter on an atomic and molecular scale.

Among the applications Israeli startups have developed using nanotech are water purification membranes, agents for oral drug delivery, inkjet digital printing systems, diagnostic tools, holographic storage systems – and an ‘e-beam on a chip,’ which is something like a laser beam, to be used for semiconductor manufacturing.

More than 80 nanotech companies in Israel

Highlighting Israel’s centrality in the emerging nanotech field, Israel is now holding its second annual International Nanotechnology Conference in Tel Aviv. The two-day conference, which opened this morning, focuses on innovations and business opportunities in the energy, water, environment, nano-material, nano-electronics, nano-photonics, nano-bio and nano-medicine fields.

Companies from Israel and abroad are showing off their nano-wares, and investors have converged on the conference, seeking out the innovations of tomorrow. Speakers include the leading lights of the discipline from Israel and abroad – and among the speakers will be the 2010 co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, Professor Andre Geim, for his discovery and work with the nano-material graphene.

The conference is being chaired by Nava Swersky-Sofer, who is one of the leaders of Israel’s life-science industry and the former CEO of Hebrew University’s tech transfer arm, Yissum; Dan Vilenski from The Israel National Nano-technology Initiative (INNI); and Prof. Arie Zaban from Bar-Ilan University.

“Israel is known worldwide as a center of knowledge and innovation in nanotechnology and research in the nano field. Israel’s achievements are at the forefront of a variety of the industrial fields, such as communications, electronics, computerization, security, medicine and life-sciences,” Swersky-Sofer tells ISRAEL21c.

A variety of applications and products are on display at the conference, and several important papers and research studies are to be presented. The INNI, one of the conference sponsors, lists more than 80 large and small companies working in Israel’s nanotech sector, along with about 40 academic and governmental labs, employing some 300 researchers and scholars. According to the INNI, Israel has the third largest concentration of startup companies in the world, surpassed only by California’s Silicon Valley and the Boston technology corridor.

An INNI survey shows that the Technion employs 119 nano-researchers, followed by 55 at Tel Aviv University, 47 at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 43 at the Weizmann Institute of Science, 39 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and 30 at Bar-Ilan University. Since 2002, the number of nano-researchers in Israel has doubled. The two main scientific disciplines are chemistry (25.6%) and physics (19.5%). Most of the researchers (33%) focus on materials, electronics and photonics (22%) and biotechnology (17%).

Nanotech development suits the Israeli model

Israel’s advantage in the nanotech field at this early stage is that it has many facilities conducting advanced research. Among the researchers is Professor Reshef Tenne of the Weizmann Institute. Tenne, who chairs a session at the conference, is best known for leading the group that discovered and studied the inorganic fullerene-like nanospheres and nanotubes, generally termed IF nanoparticles, considered a new class of nanomaterials. Tenne says that nanotech development suits the Israeli development model. “This is a small country, and nano-material research, of course, is done on a small scale. But the research can yield big results, and we expect that today’s research will pay off handsomely in the coming years,” he says.

Israeli researchers have done a great deal of work in helping to discover new nano-materials, and Israel is by far the most advanced country in the neighborhood in nano-research. “You can tell how advanced a country is by the number of high resolution electron microscopes a country has. We certainly don’t have the resources that rich European countries like Germany and Holland have, but we’ve got quite enough for a country of our size. We’re in a good spot in the middle, and our researchers take full advantage of the resources available,” Tenne tells ISRAEL21c.

Tenne himself conducts ongoing nanotech research at the Weizmann Institute in both basic materials and applications, a combination that he’s very happy with. “Over the next five to 10 years we’ll see nanotech applications take off,” he says – although the nanotech-inspired self-cleaning clothes scientists have been promising for some years now may not be at the top of the list of applications to be developed. “Most of the first round of applications will probably be in the medical field, and we here in Israel have been making great strides in the area of nano-medical technology,” Tenne relates.

Manipulating small elements of matter as it does, the science of nanotechnology is also considered an art form. In fact, nanotechnology can be used to create ‘Nanoart’. It features nano-landscapes (molecular and atomic landscapes, which are natural structures of matter at molecular and atomic scales) and nano-sculptures (structures created by manipulating matter at molecular and atomic scales using chemical and physical processes). The structures are created with research tools, including electron microscopes and atomic force microscopes, and their scientific images are captured and processed with various artistic techniques.

Among the events at the November conference will be a first-time-in-Israel nanotech art contest and exhibition, where 30 of the most impressive pieces of artwork will be on display. Israel, of course, has an active art scene which is always looking for new ideas and talent – and the country just may claim advances in both science and art at the upcoming conference.