MONTREAL (CUP) — Scientists and governments are betting that at the heart of the next industrial revolution is an incredibly small unit of matter, the nanoparticle, and Quebec is showing provinces how to harness this molecular revolution.
The study of nanoparticles falls under the broad category of nanotechnology, an interdisciplinary field that is embedded in every industry, according to the Arthur Carty, executive director of the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Nanotechnology.
“Just think of the internet and its impact. Nanotechnology is going to have a similar impact but you can’t identify it as a specific sector. It’s embedded in everything; it’s an enabling technology,” said Carty.
Nanotechnology is a field of engineering carried out an the molecular level involving particles sized between 1 and 100 nanometers, or one billionth of a meter. Present in objects like stained glass windows since as far back as medieval times, however it was only around 12 years ago that Canadian scientists and governments began to seriously take action to develop nanotechnology in Canada.
“There was a perception, quite rightly I think, that nanotechnology was a coming revolution,” said Carty. “[But] that revolution had already started and yet no one had taken really any notice or advantage of it to train people with skills across multiple disciplines in nanotechnology.”
That was until 2000, when research and development in Canada, and Quebec specifically, began to change.
“Around 2000 is when CFI, the Canadian Foundation of Innovation, came online and that’s when universities across Canada were able to get research infrastructures which started to become competitive on an international scale. Before that the research infrastructure in Canada was not competitive,” explained Peter Grütter, a physics professor at McGill specializing in nanoelectronics, and who also serves as the Faculty of Science’s associate dean for research and graduate education.
But the availability of federal CFI funds is conditional on provinces providing matching funding and so, to tap into federal funding for nanotechnology, Canada’s leading provincial initiative NanoQuébec was born.
As one of the founders, Grütter explained that NanoQuébec’s immediate goals were to enhance the quality and visibility of nanotech research in Quebec and to build infrastructure within Quebec industry and universities.
Over the past decade NanoQuébec has cycled through different organizational models, with its latest focus turning towards facilitating industrial partnerships between universities and industry.
NanoQuébec has conducted 62 ‘innovation projects’ valuing $25 million in collaboration with industry partners. Between 2006 and 2009, collaborative university-enterprise projects reached a value of $43 million.
Provincial and federal investments in Quebec’s nano-infrastructure have amounted to $400 million with seven major facilities, financed in part by NanoQuébec, generating a little over half of the investment in return.
“The fundamental reason for that is government’s will not invest into research forever and ever,” he said. “They want to see more competitive industry otherwise they will not fund NanoQuébec anymore.”
NanoQuébec receives its funding from the Ministère du Développement Économique, Innovation et Exportation and works with major Quebec universities.
Grütter also said that industry professionals have a lot to offer students and faculty, notably through providing opportunities to use state-of-the-art equipment and offering training on the use of said equipment.
Though nanotechnology is in use in Canada, no regulations specific to nanotechnology have been established. In 2005, a splinter organization from NanoQuébec called Ne3LS formed to investigate and make recommendations to take action on ethical, environmental, economic, legal and social aspects of nanotechnology.
In a report published this August, posted on Ne3LS, scholar Prerna Chouhan addressed potential implications of nanotechnology as it advances.
“[It] will result in a manufacturing revolution, probably causing severe disruption. It also has serious economic, social, environmental, and military implications,” he wrote.
“The idea in Quebec was to provide the infrastructure for nanotechnology so that it could be accessible to Quebec universities but also to Quebec industry. This is more than ten years old now, and I think NanoQuébec has been a significant success,” said Carty.
NanoQuébec is one of two nanotechnology initiatives funded by provincial governments: the Albertan government funds the National Institute of Nanotechnology located at the University of Alberta.
“In Ontario, unfortunately as of yet we do not have a strategy for nanotechnology and that’s unfortunate,” said Carty.
To make up for a lack of provincial funding, Waterloo nanotech garners funds through federal grants such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council, industry partnerships and philanthropy.
Though Quebec universities benefit from the NanoQuébec initiative, universities’ claims of being underfunded could have significant impacts on nanotech research and development efforts, said Grütter.
“Half of all the profs here were hired in the last ten years so they’re an incredibly young, new generation … and they could move anywhere else in the world they wanted to. And if things become much worse — all you need is the first few rats to leave the sinking ship and then the whole crowd leaves and that’s the real danger of the underfunding situation,” he said. “I’ve seen the first few rats making noises about leaving.”
“If the best students decide to go to Waterloo, Alberta, anywhere else in the world, it’s a very gradual slope that can become very steep, very quickly.”