Haifa — The scientific race to build smaller and smaller electronic circuits, medical equipment and other devices took a giant leap forward this week with the announcement that the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology here has established a new $88 million nanotechnology institute.
“The properties of matter — biological and inert — are determined at the one nanometer scale,” explained Uri Sivan, the institute’s director. “People have been aware of the nanometer for 50 years. What’s special now? In the last 10 or 20 years, people have developed tools to image small objects, and we have been able to image and manipulate atoms.”
There are 100 atoms, the smallest unit of an element, in one nanometer. One nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. The width of an average hair contains 80,000 nanometers. “Cells replicate and do things that are even more complex based on a code,” Sivan said. “The nanometer is the elementary unit where information is stored. The properties of matter are determined at the one-nanometer scale. Based on this information, everything else is built. That’s what makes the nanometer so special. … The challenge is to learn how to program the nanometer-sized building blocks” so they can be assembled to build microscopic objects.
An estimated $4 billion to $5 billion was spent on nanotechnology by governments worldwide last year, a figure Sivan said was more than matched by universities and private industry. The new nanotechnology institute at the Technion is named after the late Russell Berrie of New Jersey, whose foundation donated $26 million to the institute provided it was matched both by the Israeli government and the Technion itself. The Israeli government committed $26 million and the Technion raised $20 million and plans to raise another $16 million from private sources during the next five years.
“The total will firmly establish the Technion as Israel’s leading center for nanotechnology and further cement the university as one of the field’s world leaders,” the American Technion Society said in a statement.
Sivan said in an interview, “Biology, physics and chemistry all meet here [at the nanometer level], which makes it multidisciplinary “Using nanotechnology, electronic devices like transistors can be made extremely tiny and be tested while they are being made, Sivan said. And computers will become faster and more powerful.
“If we gain control over the property of matter, we will be able to build lighter and harder material and interactive material,” like glasses that darken, he said.
“After the Yom Kippur War in 1973, it became clear that we did not have a night vision system, and nobody would sell us infrared detectors,” he said. “So we built it ourselves and for seven years they were made here at the Technion.”
Sivan noted that others at the Technion are “working on material that is pliable and bullet proof. … And the medical diagnostics area is booming.”
“We are developing strategies in how to control biological processes by electronic signals so we could stop the cell division of a cancerous tumor,” he said. “We’re also using electrically active plastic to create inexpensive electronics to be used for inexpensive communications systems. We’re replacing cables with inexpensive optical electronics. That will result in optical communication to the house and it will transfer much more information than cable.”
There are currently 55 faculty members working in the field of nanotechnology at the Technion, Sivan said, noting that the new institute will be able to hire another 15 faculty members during the next five years.
“We have the largest activity in the country working in nanoscience and nanotechnology,” he said. “We’ve been doing it for years now.”
The new infusion of funds to establish a new nanotechnology center will make the Technion program larger than the one at Columbia University and as large as Harvard’s program. In Israel, the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the Weizman Institute and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev all have nanotechnology programs.
“We’re now a world class center,” Sivan said.