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Is Saudi Aramco Pioneering Nanotechnology Research?

About three years ago, I was involved in the research and drafting of a document that set out to provide the strategic priorities for a nanotechnology program in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The experience gave me a fairly comprehensive understanding of what Saudi Arabia’s infrastructure capabilities were for supporting a nanotechnology program.

To be honest, I really don’t know to what extent the recommendations of the report were followed. But if the news reports since then are any indication it appears Saudi has decided to outsource some of their nanotechnology development in order to kick start their nanotech research program.

While this may provide an interim step as labs are built, researchers are hired, and future scientists are educated, one can only hope that it is only a stop-gap measure or else the aim of creating a knowledge-based economy has fallen by the wayside.

This all comes to mind because of a press release coming from the Saudi Press Agency and published by Nanowerk in which the headline states that Saudi Aramco (state-owned national oil company of Saudi Arabia) is pioneering nanotechnology research.

Three years ago the estimates were that between Saudi Aramco and Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) there were 20 PhDs on their staffs with expertise applicable to nanotechnology and they had launched 20 research projects at that time in the field of nanotechnology. Furthermore, both SABIC and Aramco have some of the most advanced R&D facilities in the Middle East.

Aramco’s lab is still fairly new having been completed in 2005, and while we were never apprised of the exact pieces of equipment the lab possessed, we surmised that at the very least they had key pieces of equipment for conducing nanotech research, including:

  • Microscopes: SEM, XRD
  • Process Characterization: Surface Profiler
  • Wet Process: Electro plating

So, I guess I should answer the question that I posed: Is Saudi Aramco pioneering nanotechnology research?

Not to cope out, but I suppose it depends on how you want to measure these things. Saudi Aramco and the other labs in the Kingdom are no doubt performing some pretty high level research into the use of nanomaterials for applications in the oil industry and I have already expressed my admiration for their efforts in water desalination. So, my answer is “Yes” in a way and I hope that it continues to be from within rather than from outside the Kingdom.

Russian Auditors Enforce Strict Control over Nanotech Budget

One of the knocks people had when the Russian government announced its nanotechnology initiative was that it would be rife with corruption. And sometimes it seems it has fulfilled that promise.

But it also appears as though the Russian government is really bearing down hard to combat any abuses. Science magazine’s Science Insider is reporting that the Russian Federation Accounts Chamber, a body which audits the federal budget, believes that a disbanded government agency for R&D misspent US$16 million in 2008-2009 on nanotechnology projects.

According to the auditors, the now-defunct agency, called Rosnauka, spent $6.5 million on an online national nanotechnology network that duplicated a digital scientific library and Russian citation index base.

It should be noted that if this criteria were used in auditing nanotechnology projects outside of Russia, there might be some organizations that would find themselves in a bit of hot water.

That said, it seems the nanotechnology project of Russia has always been a troubling one for the government. President Dmitry Medvedev in May 2009 singled out the State Nanotechnology Corporation Rusnano as an example of how it’s a mistake to create large, state-owned corporations.

"[Rusnano] is the kind of instrument that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't work at all," Medvedev said, calling the company a "large structure that has a lot of money and that still has to understand how to correctly spend it."

Also, Rusnano seems to be under no compunction to just go out and buy their nanotechnology innovations from outside of Russia, leaving the infrastructure for nanotechnology development to remain poorly developed.

It’s great that Russia appears committed to running a tight ship when it comes to their nanotechnology initiative. However, one has to wonder what’s the point of an initiative that purports to be developing nanotechnology in Russia and just goes out and buys companies abroad. It would seem the economic benefit will spread only to a small number of financiers, but then again that is the way of things nowadays.

Overcoming Nano Hype through Griping

An expression I heard used in the movie "The Right Stuff" in reference to the NASA space program went: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers”. It would seem also the mirror of that statement is true as well: “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.”

Science funding always seems to need the promise of something exciting, and even a little ‘sci-fi’, at the end of the road to keep the dollars flowing. What’s more appealing, the potential of an invisibility cloak or a “planar hyper lens”? Sorry, Congressional committee chairmen are rarely optical engineers.

The result of hype winning out over substance is nothing new and it’s difficult to attribute a particular cause to why it occurs. But Eric Drexler on his blog Metamodern offers not only a possible reason for its habitual occurrence but even a solution.

Drexler highlights the case of an experiment initially reported in the highly regarded journal Nature Chemistry and again in the Washington State University website where the research was described in hyperbolic terms: “WSU Researchers Use Super-high Pressures to Create Super Battery”. Drexler makes short work of this one: “That’s it: a super-compressed material, not a battery, much less a “Super Battery”. If the material is stable at atmospheric pressure (or anything close), I’ll eat it or breathe the fluorine. This stuff couldn’t even be used in a battery.”

Drexler’s criticisms are welcome and, I would add, encouraged. Some more critical commentary on what passes as groundbreaking research is always welcome.

I even like his solution, and given the portmanteau of this blog that should be no surprise. Drexler suggests “progress through griping.” Hear, hear!

Instead what we usually get is a science community conducting its version of the omerta in which scientists live in fear of committing career suicide by criticizing another researchers work. Meanwhile it is appealing for those same scientists to ridicule the hapless journalists who reference a journal that is supposed to be peer reviewed.

Sales Figures for Nanomaterials Constitute Just One Economic Metric of Nanotechnology

At the risk of belaboring the point (which, by the way, is one of my favorite activities) there are market numbers and then there are market numbers for nanotechnology.

This latest comment of mine comes on the heels of a report entitled “Nanotechnology: A Realistic Market Assessment" that estimates that the global sales revenues for nanotechnology will reach $26 billion in 2015—a far cry from the $1 trillion figures that are widely circulated.

Once again Nanowerk rises in indignation at the preposterousness of $1 trillion market figures and breathes a sigh of relief that finally somebody is telling the truth, or at least as Nanowerk seems to understand it.

Nanowerk even provided a link to its previous explanation of how these numbers are derived to which I responded to as well last year.

I will provide one thing that Nanowerk needs to know about market numbers: sine qua non.

As I have explained previously:

"While the argument that just because some nanoparticles are in the paint coating of a Mercedes Benz doesn’t mean you can attach the entire value of that car to nanotech is appealing, it doesn’t quite hold up when a few pennies of a nanoparticle are used in a drug formulation.

I have tried to explain this seemingly simple economic concept before, but it apparently bears repeating. If the drug cannot be formulated so it possesses a new and improved delivery system and efficacy without the nanoparticle, then the new drug does not come into being. Therefore there is no value without the nanoparticle but with it there is. Sine qua non. Maybe a little Latin will clear that up."

While I am growing somewhat weary with this polemic, I suppose I will feel compelled to raise it at least every time that Nanowerk characterizes attempts to actually estimate the impact of nanotechnology on various markets as something less than honest.

Nanotech Employment Numbers Remain Inscrutable

We all have our favored journalists for particular subjects. For me I have been a long-time follower of Ann M. Thayer over at Chemical & Engineering News when it comes to nanotechnology reporting. I suppose in-depth, balanced reporting doesn’t get as trumpeted as much as scandal that is largely manufactured in the mind of the reporter but I sure do feel better informed after reading it.

Most recently Thayer has taken on the subject of just how big an impact nanotechnology is having on our economy and its effect on bolstering employment and I would have to say the results are mixed.

On the one hand, you have the ever-optimistic viewpoint of Mihail C. Roco, a senior adviser for nanotechnology at NSF, who helped develop the numbers back in 2000 that estimated that by 2015 2 million workers worldwide, and 800,000 in the US, would be needed to support nanotechnology manufacturing. According to Roco, we’re still on target with estimates that in 2008 there were 160,000 workers in nanotechnology, representing a 25% increase between 2000 and 2008. If that same percentage increase is applied to the years from 2008 to 2015, then you would get 800,000 by 2015 in Roco’s estimates.

As satisfying as it may be to be dead-on accurate with one’s projections, one cannot help be reminded of Upton Sinclair’s quote “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” If you are given the task of predicting the unpredictable you have to stick to the methodology even when it hardly makes sense.

I have to give credit to Thayer for really pushing Roco for what that methodology actually is since no one seemed to know before how the $1 trillion by 2015 was arrived at. This is what we get:

“To measure jobs, Roco uses a definition that covers nanoscale science, engineering, and technology and tallies workers in two ways. One is by assessing penetration, primarily the use of nanomaterials, into production and then estimating the number of workers who handle something “nano.” Another is by counting employment in new areas that he considers nanotech, such as advanced flat-panel displays, nanophotonics, and molecular medicine.”

They call economics the dismal science and I suppose nothing could be more dismal, or disappointing, than seeing how estimates are actually arrived at for employment numbers. So guys at the flat-panel display factory are nanotech workers? Geez.

I understand why these kinds of estimates are needed and one tries to do the best one can in terms of accuracy under hopeless circumstances but what can we really interpret from these figures, setting aside whether they are accurate or not?

It is probably better that we come to the conclusion of Tim Harper in the article: “Many people presupposed that nanotech was going to be an industry that can be defined, but it’s nearly impossible to second-guess the path an emerging technology will take.” This is true, unless, of course, someone is paying you to second-guess the path of an emerging technology in which case come up with a number and stick to it.

Nanostructured Metamaterial Enables Invisibility Cloak

Clearly the most attractive super hero power for nanotechnology at the moment is invisibility. Last month we had a nano-enabled coating that managed to make aircraft invisible to radar. Now we have a metamaterial consisting of fishnet-like film containing holes about 100 nanometers in diameter that could serve as an invisibility cloak.

While I personally might be persuaded to choose Spider-like climbing abilities for my nano-enabled super hero power, invisibility does pose an attractive option.

However, invisibility is far from the point of this research conducted at the Birck Nanotechnology Center, Purdue University and appears in the August 5th edition of the journal Nature.

The Purdue researchers have addressed one of the key limitations of metamaterials in optical devices: the absorption of too much light by metals in the metamaterials.

In the article cited above Vladimir M. Shalaev, Purdue's Robert and Anne Burnett Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, explains "This finding is fundamental to the whole field of metamaterials,” adding "We showed that, in principle, it's feasible to conquer losses and develop these materials for many applications."

Metamaterials have tantalized researchers for years with their index of refraction at or below zero that promises extraordinary breakthroughs in the field of transformation optics. But the materials absorbed too much light. With this research, some of the applications that have been discussed for these materials are back on the table such as a “planar hyperlens” that could enable “optical microscopes 10 times more powerful and able to see objects as small as DNA.”

"What's really important is that the absorption coefficient can be as small as only one-millionth of what it was before using our approach," Shalaev said. "We can even have amplification of light instead of its absorption. Here, for the first time, we showed that metamaterials can have a negative refractive index and amplify light."

Stretching of Graphene Could Launch the Age of "Straintronics"

The publication ElectroIQ has an article on recent research coming out of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that has shown that a three-point stretch of graphene creates nanobubbles in which the electrons segregate into quantized energy levels instead of occupying energy bands.

The research, which was originally published in the July 30th edition of the journal Sciencehas revealed that the electrons within the nanobubbles mimic the energy levels they would have if they were moving in circles in the presence of a strong magnetic field as high as 300 tesla. 

According to Michael Crommie, professor of physics at UC Berkeley and a faculty researcher at LBNL, in the ElectroIQ article this discovery makes it possible to control how electrons move in graaphene and thereby manipulate the material’s electronic properties.

“By controlling where the electrons bunch up and at what energy, you could cause them to move more easily or less easily through graphene, in effect, controlling their conductivity, optical or microwave properties,” says Crommie in the article. “Control of electron movement is the most essential part of any electronic device."

As one might imagine, an experiment to stretch a piece of graphen was hardly planned. Instead this discovery was serendipitous after a UC Berkeley postdoctoral researcher and several students in Crommie’s lab grew graphene on a platinum crystal. Because the carbon atoms in graphene have a hexagonal pattern and the platinum has a triangular crystal structure they don’t line up and a strain pattern is created as though it were being pulled from three different directions.

While the findings may have been serendipitous, the results were predicted in carbon nanotubes as far back as 1997.

Now we can start using the term “straintronics” which involves, according to Crommie, “…the idea of using mechanical deformations in graphene to engineer its behavior for different electronic device applications."

Nanomagnets May Mitigate the Need for Dialysis in Removing Pathogens from Blood

Last week, Nanowerk’s Spotlight piece covered recent research in which Swiss researchers demonstrated that they could remove metal ions, steroid drugs and proteins from blood by using nanomagnets.

The nanomagnets are basically carbon-coated iron carbide at the nanoscale (an average diameter of 30 nanometers) and are functionalized with linker molecules that attract the target material in the blood.

The work comes out of the Functional Materials Laboratory (FML) that was founded in 2004 by Prof. Wendelin J. Stark at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich).

One of Stark’s PhD students, Inge Hermann, was the first author on a paper in the journal Small entitled “Blood Purification Using Functionalized Core/Shell Nanomagnets”.

According to Inge in the Nanowerk piece, the system is capable of selectively removing toxins or pathogens from whole blood within minutes. Among the clearest advantages of this process over other blood purification techniques, such as dialysis and plasma filtration, is its ability to get to substances of different masses and dimensions and it doesn’t suffer from filter cut offs or slow pore diffusion in membranes.

“By using magnetic metal nanomagnets carrying target-specific ligands, we showed that blood purification at a nano- to pico-molar scale is possible," says Prof. Stark in the Nanowerk article.

It seems the researchers have high hopes for the commercial prospects of the process. An ETH spin-out company has already been formed called Turbobeads that will commercialize at least parts of the metal nanomagnet technology.

Carbon Nanotubes Enable Pumpless Liquid Cooling System for Computers

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a new design employing carbon nanotubes and small copper spheres that wicks water passively towards hot electronics that could meet the challenges brought on by increasing frequency speeds in chips.

The problem of overheating electronics is well-documented and in the past the issue has been addressed with bigger and bigger fans. But with chip features shrinking below 50 nanometers the fan solution is just not cutting it.

The Purdue researchers, led by Suresh V. Garimella, came up with a design that uses water as the coolant liquid and transfers the water to an ultrathin thermal ground plane. The design naturally pushes the water through obviating the need for a pump and through the use of microfluidic design is able to boil the water fully, which allows the wicking away of more heat.

One of the keys to the design was creating pore sizes that were smaller than previous sintered designs. While achieving the smaller pore size the researchers had to overcome the problem of frictional resistance on the liquid that would come with more pores (the smaller they are the more of them there are). It’s here that the carbon nanotubes came into play as the researchers used 50-nm copper coated carbon nanotubes to make the small pores.


This is not the first time that Purdue researchers have worked with carbon nanotubes to dissipate heat in chips. A few years back they were looking at growing millions of carbon nanotubes on a chip like grass to dissipate the heat generated from chips, and showed promise in better conducting heat in passively cooled systems such as cellphones than thermal greases now commonly used. 

A Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant is funding this mos recent research and the Purdue researchers are collaborating with Raytheon, Thermacore Inc. and Georgia Tech on the project.

Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls in Nanotech

Tim Harper has been covering what he describes as the “Death of UK Nanotech” over at his TNTLog and I hope it serves as a cautionary tale to other regions of the world on the pitfalls of certain nanotechnology development strategies.

Harper quotes a recent assessment of UK Science Minister David Willets who commented that it would be “most unlikely” that the UK’s 24 nanotech centers will still be open in 18 months.

The problem appears to be one of politics. In an effort to allow every region of England to be part of the economic transformative power of “the next big thing”, they built 24 separate nanotech centers rather than focusing their resources into one or two large labs, like France did with their Grenoble innovation cluster.

While the US nanotechnology initiative has been far less diluted in its focusing of resources, just taking into account just the dimensions of the two countries, there is still that troubling catering to constituencies that you get in representative democracies.

Evidence of this was seen at the President’s Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) meeting to examine innovation frameworks for nanotechnology in which the story was related of how the National Science Foundation with just a couple of million dollars set aside was looking to develop new instrumentation technologies, and splitting that money between 13 bids. The likely result being that not one of the projects will be able to progress very far in developing any new instruments but it may satisfy some notion of spreading the wealth.

Since TNTLog first started covering this story both Frogheart and TNTLog have noted that this closing down of at least some of the 24 nanotech centers may be old news and its current discussion being just another political ploy.

That said, whether the demise of these research facilities is new or old news there are lessons to be learned from their unraveling.

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IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.

Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
Rachel Courtland
Associate Editor, IEEE Spectrum
New York, NY
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