It’s a really small world

  • 2010-09-09
  • By Ella Karapetyan

TALLINN - The world is becoming increasingly strange because people are willing to pay money for things which are made more durable, fire-proof, lighter, or more attractive by particles which cannot be distinguished by the naked eye. Nanotechnology, shortened to ‘nanotech,’ is known as the study of the controlling of matter on the atomic and molecular scale. Generally, nanotechnology deals with structures sized between 1 to 100 nanometers in at least one dimension, and involves developing materials or devices within that size.

Nanotechnology is very diverse, ranging from extensions of conventional device physics to completely new approaches based upon molecular self-assembly, from developing new materials with dimensions on the ‘nano’ scale to investigating whether we can directly control matter at the atomic scale.

There has been much debate on the future implications of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology may be able to create many new materials and devices with a vast range of applications, such as in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and energy production. On the other hand, nanotechnology raises many of the same issues as with any introduction of new technology, including concerns about the toxicity and environmental impact of nanomaterials, and their potential effects on global economics, as well as speculation about various doomsday scenarios.

The development of nanotechnology in the past decade has been impressive. In recent years, the benefits of nanotechnology in the world economy have increased by at least a third per year. Unfortunately, Estonian entrepreneurs have not gained much from the triumph of the technology. Although Estonians have universities, scientists, and equipment and apparatus at their disposal, which allows the human eye to enter the wonderful and mysterious world of nanoparticles, Estonia still has no nano-laboratory where an entrepreneur could go and let his idea earn money, with the help of scientists and equipment.

If everything goes as planned at Tartu Science Park, next spring will see the opening of a third semi-industrial laboratory which, according to its plan, is first and foremost meant for entrepreneurs who wish to obtain advice from scientists in terms of product development concerning nanotechnology.

The head of the Estonian Nanotechnologies Development Center and advisor to the establishment of the Nanolab to be built at Tartu Science Park, Ilmar Kink, says that so far the Baltics lack one fixed center where entrepreneurs could obtain assistance and advice in the field of nanotechnology. Therefore, at least for now, the Nanolab established in Tartu will also be of assistance for entrepreneurs from Latvia and Lithuania.

Kink says that nowadays scientists are the people on whose time and desire it depends if the wish of Estonian entrepreneurs to contribute to product development related to nanotechnologies will be realized or not. “Universities do everything within their capacities to assist entrepreneurs, but they have their limits because the scientists also need to study, in addition to do their research,” says Kink. “The more there are such centers where scientists can deal with only assisting entrepreneurs, the more we move towards a knowledge-based economy.”

Several groups of scientists are involved in nanotechnological research at Tallinn University of Technology, KBFI, and University of Tartu. These are mostly enthusiastic researchers who are focused on narrow areas of studies, as there is no general and extensive knowledge center in the area of nanotechnology in Estonia. Therefore, an entrepreneur needs to be a sort of a palmist and guess from all the scientists the one who could and would be able to help him.

“The main idea of the Nanolab is to establish a special building with all the necessary equipment and clean rooms for performing tests,” explains Kink. Estonian scientists are pretty well equipped. However, they mostly lack clean rooms, which is the major bottleneck for the developments related to nanotechnology for Estonian companies.
“From the point of view of nanotechnology, it is very important that all the tests are performed in controlled conditions which could be offered by the clean rooms, where there is no dust,” adds Kink. “The nanostructures are of the same measurements as a small speck of dust; as such, it is rather complicated to tell the difference.”

He says that Estonian scientists currently analyze small structures in test tubes and laboratories rather successfully, but at one point the technologies need to be brought to a larger scale. For example, at the Estonian nanotechnologies development center there is an ongoing project for developing electro-optical glass. However, it is rather difficult to bring to the production phase under the current conditions because Estonia lacks clean room space where large-scale test objects could be prepared. The glass in the development phase could turn out to be a rather popular sales article in the future. In offices, for example, it would allow for regulation of the transparency of glass surfaces, as required.

The Science Park has worked on the Nanolab project since 2006. Last year, the construction project was completed. To date, the public procurement for construction has been carried out and a 50 percent support decision has been received from Enterprise Estonia for test and semi-industrial laboratories.

The central part of the 1,000 square meter Nanolab will be the 430 square meter complex of clean rooms, which consists of seven clean rooms and a service area. As far as is known, this is more than in all the research institutions of Estonia put together. For example, the chemistry building of the University of Tartu has two rather small clean rooms. Some of the pharmaceutical companies operating in Estonia also have some clean rooms, but they are mostly meant for use within the company. Furthermore, the biologists at the University of Tartu have a clean room, but this is not suitable for physicists. The problem lies in the fact that while the clean rooms used by physicists are under super pressure, the ones used by biologists are under negative air pressure. “If we want nothing to enter a clean room, then they want that nothing would leave the clean room,” explained Kink.

The Science Park began developing the Nanolab idea due to the interest of several technology companies, including Clifton, a developer of semiconductors, and Evikon MCI, a manufacturer of gas sensors.
Regardless of the permanent residents, the Nanolab is to be established in Tartu, and it should offer the possibility of contracting out development work by any entrepreneur. Nowadays, nanotechnology is, among other things, used in manufacturing frames for bicycles, the cosmetics industry, and car manufacturing. According to Kink, the scientists have recently been contacted by many entrepreneurs who import chemical products with nanotechnological additives, such as car wash products.

Due to the fact that in order to import chemical products one has to know rather precisely what they contain, the scientists are sought for help in order to establish the components of the product. At the same time, studying the components of a random car wash liquid is not a very promising endeavor, in terms of science. And although in the case of some products that contain nanoparticles, measuring the components is a standard activity, at present Estonian scientists simply do not have time to do such measuring work. However, in the future, it will be possible to carry out the standardized measuring of nanoparticles.

So, who else would have business at the future Nanolab? Tartu alone has many clothing manufacturers, such as Ilves Extra, or perhaps the plastics manufacturer Estiko Plastar, whose products can be made more durable if nanoparticles would be added to the fabric structures. The Estonian nanotechnologies development center is already performing research which would allow Estiko to add nanotubes to the film used for manufacturing plastic bags, thereby increasing the load capacity of plastic bags by several kilograms. “The current results are already very impressive,” assures Kink.

However, product development is impossible if equipment and scientists are not at the disposal of the entrepreneurs. The new nanolaboratory will also have modern fixtures in the form of research equipment. If the equipment can be brought in and rented, then things are more complicated with “equipping” the laboratory with scientists. In this respect, the Nanolab is co-operating with universities and existing institutes, but if entrepreneurs so wish, scientists can be brought in from abroad as well. Of course, entrepreneurs have to pay for such services.

“After a short training, the Nanolab can also be used by the scientists hired by the entrepreneurs, but scientists and researchers can also be rented from Nanolab,” says Kink. However, the Nanolab is not planning to make the permanent staff too large. The problem with nanotechnology is that the circle of problems in this research area is very extensive and specific, and therefore a flexible approach to labor is the most efficient and rational solution.

According to Toomas Noorem, director of the Tartu Science Park, funds for the building of the Nanolab have been received from Enterprise Estonia and there are ongoing negotiations with banks for obtaining further financing. “If everything goes as planned, the cornerstone should be laid in place already sometime around midsummer,” added Noorem. “The cost of construction, together with the equipment of the clean room, will amount to 27 million kroons (1.7 million euros) of the cost of the Nanolab, and the rest of the funds will be used for acquisition of the research equipment.
This will be the third semi-industrial laboratory of the Tartu Industrial Park. The park already has Protolab and Energylab, or regional energy agency.

Tartu Science Park was founded in 1992 as the first of its kind in the Baltic States. In 1996, the form of ownership of the Science Park was changed and the city and county of Tartu, University of Tartu, Estonian University of Life Sciences, and Institute of Physics of the University of Tartu founded the foundation Tartu Science Park, which operates today. The aim of the activities of the Science Park, as the support structure for innovation, is to support the creation, development, and activities of research and technology companies by offering infrastructure and business development services in the region of Tartu and throughout south Estonia.