Tools to investigate the tiny – nanoscience comes of age

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Dr. Peter Grutter and his colleagues are developing instruments to observe and manipulate objects on the nano-scale.

Every science needs the  right tools to move it forward. For astronomy, the crucial tool was the telescope, for biology, the microscope. Now, nanoscience —  the science of the very, very small  – is coming of age, thanks in part to tools developed at the McGill Nanotools Microfabrication Lab (MNM). McGill students, researchers and industry partners are using these tools to do research in disciplines from physics, engineering and medicine to education and agriculture.

“In any science, development of instrumentation comes first because you have to have the tools before you can do the science or the engineering,” says Dr. Peter Grutter, MNM Director and chair of McGill’s Physics Department. “Obviously, when you do nanoscience you need to be able to interact with the objects that you’re investigating. These objects may be as small as a few nanometers in size  — that’s a few billionths of a meter. This requires the right tools.”

The rapid advances of nanoscience (from the Greek word nano, meaning dwarf) have been made possible by the development of better microscopes, new material growth facilities and modeling tools. Not surprisingly, this apparatus is expensive. The MNM houses about $25 million in hardware and employs seven engineers to train students and maintain equipment. Researchers, scattered across McGill  in 50 to 60 research groups, are using nanotools to study subjects from photosynthesis to computer chip design.

Traditional boundaries between disciplines disappear

Grutter quote 2“At the nanometer scale,  traditional boundaries between disciplines disappear,” says Dr. Grutter. “I have a neuro cell culture in my lab.  I can grow neurons. At the same time I can use liquid helium to look at single electrons at close to absolute zero. In the past,  someone who did low temperature solid-state physics with electrons and semiconductors usually didn’t get involved in biology. But at the nano level, there are very deep connections between, for example, how information flows in neurons and how light gets converted into electrons.”

As nanoscience evolves, it has led researchers to unexpected insights. “ To understand how photosynthesis works and why it’s so efficient, it turns out, we need to understand quantum mechanics,” says Dr. Grutter. “This was a surprise. If you had asked me six years ago, ‘does quantum coherence play a role in biology?’ I would have said ‘well, some people think so — but there’s no evidence.’ Now we know differently.”

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Microfab team member Dr. Sasa Ristic holds degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

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This SwissLitho nanophaser was used to create the world’s smallest topographic map of Canada (see above).

One promising use of nanotechnology is in the area of drug discovery. Researchers are using the tools of nanoscience to study how cells form connections or  interact with parasites, and how drugs affect the disease outcome. Thanks to nanotechnology, these studies can be done quickly and with relatively small volumes, accelerating the drug discovery process.

“We’re at the beginning of an exponential growth phase in nanoscience, Dr. Grutter says. “Until recently, the field was limited by the relatively small number of people working in it and the availability of tools. A decade ago, if we had an idea we needed to write the grant, get the equipment and figure out how to make the right tools – a process which might easily have taken two years. Now,  we can get the same amount accomplished in two months because we have a cutting-edge, well-equipped facility, more and better tools and an established interdisciplinary network.  When we have ideas we can implement them quickly.

Small is beautiful in yet another sense, according to Dr. Grutter. “One of the big advantages of McGill in my view is that the campus is compact,” he says. “ If I have an idea I want to discuss with colleagues from the Neurological Institute or from chemistry, engineering or medicine, I can just walk over and have a coffee with them. This easy access to other experts in the field is a huge advantage.”

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