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J.M. Pitarke: "Nanotechnology will give us more for less"

J.M. Pitarke: "Nanotechnology will give us more for less"


[www.nanobasque.eu] José María Pitarke, Director General of CIC nanoGUNE, has turned the center he runs into a world reference in a very short time, with remarkable successes as the founding of Graphenea, one of the few companies worldwide capable of producing graphene. Pitarke says nanotechnology will help basque companies open new knowledge-intensive industrial sectors

The word ‘nano’ is in fashion. What is the reason for the boom in nanoscience over the last few years? What impact does nanotechnology have on people’s everyday life?

It was little over two decades ago when human beings began to be able to manipulate matter atom by atom and imitate nature in the self organisation of systems at a nanometer scale. And it has precisely been the ability to manipulate material at this scale, the scale of atoms and molecules, which has awoken the imagination of all, from scientists to the most sensational journalists, and has produced the ‘nano’ explosion. The potential is extraordinary. Nanotechnology is already impacting our lives with mobile telephones, computers, electronic books and cutting edge hard drives, but this is nothing compared to the nanotechnology revolution which may still be on its way. There is no industrial sector which cannot benefit from the development of nanotechnology, in particular, one of the fields in which more hope is placed is in medicine, in which nanotechnology could represent a strong revolution in the manner in which we deal with diagnosis and the treatment of illnesses.

In this context, the Basque Government made an important commitment to this field with the start up of the nanoBasque Strategy. What is the position of the Basque Country in the world map of nanoscience and what can it contribute?

Science and technology demand long term investments with a view into the future. The Basque Government made a commitment years ago with a wise decision to support nanotechnology and fortunately continues committed today. Diverse initiatives driven by the nanoBasque Strategy (not only the launch of nanoGUNE, but also the start up of collaboration programmes between research groups from the Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC), the UPV/EHU, Tecnalia and the IK4 Research Alliance), combined with the incorporation of new researchers through the Ikerbasque programme, are allowing us to gain a position which is becoming more and more visible in the world of nanoscience. We will continue competing and collaborating with laboratories from all over the world until we find the space that will allow us to offer something different. This is the big challenge of the small.

What profits will the strong public commitment to nanotechnology have for Basque society now and in the future?

We should not let ourselves get carried away by a short term profitability. Investing in bricks and mortar was very profitable in the short term, but we have seen that it was not in the long term. What is most profitable is training and attracting the best professionals and creating the culture that is needed so that the work of these professionals can be transformed into ideas, employment and wealth for the country. The commitment to nanotechnology is founded on its horizontality, on its capacity to impact the most diverse sectors. Nanotechnology will help us, undoubtedly, to open new industrial sectors that are knowledge intensive, and we also hope that, thanks to nanotechnology, our traditional companies will be able to provide added value to their products, making them more competitive in a global market. Nanotechnology will provide us with new materials, new properties, and a reduction in the consumption of raw materials and energy. Nanotechnology will give us more for less. How could we possibly stay on the sidelines of a long-awaited revolution?

CIC nanoGUNE began in 2009 to promote research in nanoscience. What human resources and scientific infrastructures does it have? What are its main areas of research?

NanoGUNE currently has 74 researchers and technicians working on nanomagnetism, self-assembly, nanooptics, nanobiotechnology, nanodevices, electron microscopy, theory, nanoimaging, and nanomaterials. In addition, at nanoGUNE we are promoting research in collaboration with groups at the DIPC, the UPV/EHU, Tecnalia, and IK4 in nanomagnetism, polymers, photonics, graphene, and cementitious materials. As for the infrastructure, we have a 1,500 square-meter basement divided up into a cleanroom and 15 laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art tools. We have techniques for the deposition of nanomaterials and nanolithography, equipment to manufacture nanoscale structures, characterisation techniques to analyze the technological potential of nanostructures, and an advanced electron-microscopy platform which, at the service of the Basque Science, Technology, and Innovation Network, has positioned us as world leaders in this type of infrastructures.

What is your evaluation of the scientific dimension which the centre has acquired since its inauguration? What research projects would stand out as the most relevant at this stage?

Infrastructure and the training of the research team, we can say that all our initial goals have been gone beyond all expectations. Not only have we developed in a record time an infrastructure comparable to those of the best nanotechnology centres in the world and have we been able to attract researchers that are well recognized in their respective fields, but also during the three years that the centre has been in operation we have advanced significantly in all fronts: we have published in the very best research journals, we have solicited patents, we have initiated research projects with companies under contract and we have been able to launch, along with an investing group, our first business initiative, Graphenea, with the aim of manufacturing and selling graphene, the two-dimensional material which was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010. Among the most relevant research projects we can highlight the design of a new microscopy technique that analyses several nanostructures and its properties in three-dimensions, and the development of new electronics based on the spin (intrinsic moment of rotation) of the electron. These are extraordinarily innovative projects which are developed in the frontiers of knowledge and are being financed by the European Research Council with almost 1.5 million Euros each for a period of five years in the framework of the Starting-Grant prestigious programme.

The centre has acquired three new pieces of equipment for its electron microscopy laboratory. What possibilities have been opened now for CIC nanoGUNE with these installations and how can the new laboratory interact with the centre’s other research units, with the rest of the nanoBasque entities, and with the international scientific community?

The advanced electron-microscopy laboratory puts us as world leaders in this type of infrastructure, not only because of the characteristics of the microscopes but also because the laboratory is run by leading researchers in the field who are capable of exploiting this cutting-edge instrumentation to the limit of its capabilities. The laboratory is the fruit of a collaboration agreement with FEI, leading company in the manufacturing of scientific equipment, an agreement which, in addition to the acquisition and installation of the tools, includes the development of certain joint research projects funded by FEI. The laboratory includes a high-resolution transmission electron microscope which allows for the visualisation of individual atoms and the characterisation of nanostructures in relation with its function, an environmental scanning electron microscope that is specially suited to analyse samples in humid conditions and is of special interest in applications related to nanofluidics and nanomedicine, and a dual-beam (ion and electrons) focused ion beam which operates as a real three-dimensional nanostructure factory with a resolution that is not accessible with other techniques. The start

up of the advanced electron microscopy laboratory has been extraordinarily profitable for nanoGUNE’s research, having given way to an excellent scientific production which we have published in top journals like Nature, Nature Materials, and Nature Photonics. In addition, the laboratory is at the service of research groups outside nanoGUNE; in fact, we have promising collaborations which we hope will increase in the near future.

A new theoretical research group has been created. Can you tell us what its composition and mission inside the centre will be?

The leader of the theory group, Emilio Artacho, joined us in October last year. Emilio Artacho, who had a professorship at the University of Cambridge, is an expert in the development of methods to simulate the electronic properties of materials at a nanometer scale. I have no doubt that Emilio, because of his knowledge and versatility, will be able to launch a research group which, in addition to developing new methodologies on the frontiers of knowledge, will generate synergies and new ideas among the experimental groups. Besides this group, we also have the incorporation of Mato Knez, from the Max Planck Institute in Halle, Germany, who has started up a new research line in the synthesis of nanomaterials based on the use of atomic-layer-deposition techniques in which he is a recognized international expert, and in September, Nacho Pascual, professor at the University of Berlin, joined us to lead a laboratory dedicated to probe (tunneling and atomic-force) microscopies, allowing nanoGUNE to go from being a user of these techniques to becoming a centre of reference in their development.

CIC nanoGUNE has consolidated itself as a reference in research in the Basque Country, with top level installations and a human team of dozens of highly qualified researchers. How do you see the centre in the future?

NanoGUNE aspires to become an international reference in nanoscience and nanotechnology which should stand out not only for carrying out research of excellence at the frontiers of knowledge but also for playing a key role in the incorporation of nanotechnology to the Basque business fabric and for its leadership in the staging of an efficient cooperation among different agents in the Basque Science, Technology, and Innovation Network.

Interview with Jose Maria Pitarke, Director General of CIC nanoGUNE,published at www.nanobasque.eu.