Swiss Nanoscience Institute: Teaching technology

The Swiss Nanoscience Institute’s communications team have become known as ‘ambassadors for nanoscience’, schooling new generations in the technology of the future

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This year, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI) at the University of Basel celebrated its fifth birthday. In only five years it has become a globally renowned research institution. The focus of the SNI lies on basic research in nanoscience and nanotechnology. However, besides these scientific activities, SNI researchers work closely together with different industrial partners to develop novel applications and to bring innovation forward.

Additionally, the SNI strives to openly communicate with all stakeholders like political authorities, Swiss academies and the public. A strong emphasis is put on education and the discussion with young people during school visits, open exhibitions and science festivals. Based on these activities the Basler Zeitung, a well-known newspaper in Switzerland, titled the communication team of the SNI as being “ambassadors for nanoscience.”

Size is the key to nanotechnology, which is set to be a key discipline of the 21st century. The revolutionary background is the feasibility of engineering objects consisting of single molecules. The prefix ‘nano’ refers to the relevant length scale, which is one nanometre, the millionth part of a millimetre. The elementary biochemical and biophysical processes in cells take place in nanometre dimensions. Many material properties like hydrophobicity are due to characteristics on a nanometre scale. Lots of technical applications can therefore be developed from the ideas that nature provides.

Small size; big results
Nanotechnology contributes to the development of materials with special properties, referred to as nano-materials. Sun creams with a very high protective factor and silk ties with a water repellent coating that remain clean even after coffee is spilled on them are just two examples of nanotechnology-based developments. Even more interesting are the applications that are still being explored in the nanoscientists’ R&D laboratories.

Researchers are investigating new approaches for the further miniaturisation of computer technology, new displays and solar cells. Furthermore, interdisciplinary teams are working on the development of innovative approaches to diagnose and treat various serious diseases like cancer. They try to reduce the required dose rates by factors of a thousand and more. New approaches of targeted drug delivery are able to transport conventional drugs only to those sites where they are needed. Side effects can be reduced enormously.

Not all research projects are expected to turn into market-ready products within one decade. The team of Professor Daniel Loss, for example, is doing theoretical research for applications of systems following the complex laws of quantum physics. In recent years it has become clear that the complexity of quantum physics can be turned into an advantage for humanity – complex problems can be solved which would be intractable otherwise. Such a machine is called a quantum computer. A key application is the calculation of climate models which is impossible with conventional computers. A quantum computer could solve this problem in a reasonable time.

The research activities in Nanoscience have been boosted since 1981 by the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM). The Swiss physicist Heinrich Rohrer and his German colleague Gerd Binnig at the IBM Research Center in Rüschlikon developed a microscope that could reach a resolution of less than a nanometre. The STM opened a channel to the nanometre cosmos and the inventors were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986. Among the first collaborators with the Rüschlikon team were the physics Professor Hans-Joachim Güntherodt, who 15 years later founded the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) on Nanoscale Science and finally the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI).

Combined knowledge
The SNI was established in 2006 as a collaboration between the University of Basel and the canton of Aargau. The SNI employs more than one hundred researchers. It is the sustainable follow-up of the NCCR Nanoscale Science which was founded in 2001 by Professor Hans-Joachim Güntherodt. The SNI is an interdisciplinary approach, combining the knowledge of scientists from biology, chemistry, physics, pharmacy and medicine. The research groups are hosted at the corresponding university departments and are led by university professors embedded in their ancestral research field. The interdisciplinary character definitely is an added value to the research on nanoscale.

The goal of the SNI is to considerably contribute to the understanding of the nanoworld, to challenge all possible advantages of the nanosciences and to participate proactively in the open discussion about safety questions and possible risks. The management of the SNI pursues a holistic view of questions touching the field of nanoscience. Societal, economic and scientific questions are considered in front of a holistic background. The canton of Aargau has developed a high-tech strategy in order to foster know-how and technology transfer between small and medium-sized companies, global players, universities, and research institutions.

In the strategic paper, the enhanced knowledge transfer in the area of nanotechnology is pointed out as a central measure. The SNI takes a leading role here. To further extend the support of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the canton of Aargau is planning to implement a Know-how and Technology Transfer Centre that is oriented towards SMEs and should act as a mediator to universities.

In order to ensure the sustainable knowledge transfer from the SNI to industry, a special grant initiative has been set up under the label of Nano-Argovia. Researchers from academia work together with their colleagues in industry on the development of potentially marketable applications of nanotechnology. This has an important impact to the local economy and leads to a profit for the academic partners as well. The concept has proven to be very successful. Every year representatives from academia and industry meet for an exchange of results and ideas. In its fifth year, more than 150 people joined the annual Nano-Argovia event.

Outreach activities
Communications of research activities as well as discussions with the public on relevant societal questions are central parts of the SNI management. The Director, Professor Christian Schönenberger, has set up a team of four people to take charge of the dialog with various non-scientific target groups. The SNI presents its research activities in public lectures at academic evening events as well as at high schools in the form of interactive learning sequences. The most spectacular outreach activity, however, is the interactive nanotechnology exhibition booth that has been set up already across more than 20 cities in Switzerland and abroad. Recent technical applications and easy-to-perform experiments are demonstrated to present the most important findings of nanoscience. In the last decade, SNI exhibitions have attracted more than 10,000 visitors.

Nanoscience has evolved to become more than just a combination of classical science disciplines. Therefore, a new university curriculum has been set up at the University of Basel offering both a Bachelor and a Masters degree. Students of nanosciences take lectures in physics, chemistry and biology. Early in the curriculum students are enrolled in actual research projects and are trained in scientific writing and other key skills for scientific work in an interdisciplinary environment. The fostering of education of future generations is a key task for a young discipline that evolves and changes quickly.

On the other hand, studying nanoscience opens a variety of opportunities for the next generation. They may become successful scientists, teachers, experts in interdisciplinary and complex questions, and some of them may follow the path towards politics or outreach and become ambassadors for nanoscience themselves.