History of the Laboratory

(Opening of the the Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory and Wolfson Laboratory for Surface Modification)

The Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory was established in the School of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Birmingham following the appointment of Professor Richard E Palmer to the Chair of Experimental Physics from October 1994. The goal of the new Laboratory is to advance the frontiers of the physics, chemistry and technology of nanometre scale structures, devices and processes.

The establishment of the Laboratory represented a major investment (£1.3 million) by The University of Birmingham in an area widely regarded both as a frontier of science and as a foundation for the optical, electrical and chemical technologies of the 21st century. This investment has been complemented by a grant of £200k from the Wolfson Foundation to establish the Wolfson Laboratory for Surface Modification, which is part of the Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory. Professor Palmer's group has also established a partnership with ten regional companies to set up a Regional Centre for Scientific Instruments in the School, supported by a major grant (£560k) from the European Regional Development Fund. The Centre will support scientific developments (e.g. in optics, sensors, thin films and scanning probe microscopy) in the School and in the regional industrial base, and will provide an exploitation route for novel instruments.

Thus total startup investment in the new Laboratory exceeds £2 million, providing a state-of-the-art suite of research laboratories with excellent scientific facilities.

An interdisciplinary and international approach is central to the ethos of the Laboratory; collaborations with other Schools (Chemistry, Materials, Electrical Engineering etc) in the University of Birmingham are be enhanced by their proximity on the University campus and international collaborations with approximately 20 laboratories in Europe, Japan and the USA have been sustained and nurtured. The Laboratory has signed a formal twinning agreement with the newly established Joint Research Centre for Atom Technology (JRCAT) in Tsukuba, Japan.

The creation of the Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory brings the number of researchers in Nanoscale Science in the University of Birmingham to more than 100, possibly Europe's largest effort in the field.

The Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory is committed to establishing and consolidating strong links with industrial partners, in order to optimise the transfer of new concepts and technology from the research laboratory into opportunities for wealth creation and improvements to the environment. The group has a strong record of collaboration with UK industry, for example, in the development and testing of new (commercial) scientific instruments (Oxford Instruments, WA Technology, Hiden Analytical etc) and processes (ICI, BOC). A notable recent achievement was the invention of a prototype chemical device - the "Electronic Catalyst" - in collaboration with the BOC Group plc, which is the subject of international patent applications (Japan, USA, Europe, 1994) by BOC. Further examples of innovation can be found in the group's patent database.

The establishment of the Laboratory is consistent with European strategy for the regeneration of the industrial base of the West Midlands. The Programme Document for the West Midlands Objective 2 region envisages a dual approach: (1) preservation of the region's traditional industrial base via modernisation, technology transfer and adoption of best practice; (2) diversification of the industrial base via exploitation of new products and processes, especially those with high added value. The latter objective requires a long term strategy to create an intellectual, technical and social infrastructure which will stimulate (a) inward investment, (b) relocation of high technology enterprise, (c) generation of new SME's via spin-off from R&D establishments, notably the Universities, and (d) support for local SME's operating at the technological frontiers. This scenario closely mirrors the "Cambridge phenomenon" which has led to the successful transformation of the regional economy. Here the existence of high profile, world class University research groups in technologically applicable areas can be identified as a key driver for both inward investment and SME spin-off. The foundation of the Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory provides the West Midlands with a new technical and intellectual resource in the field of nanoscience, regarded as a key driver of "21st century technology".

The initial scientific targets of the Laboratory have been reflected in two major research programs:

  • Cluster physics and nanostructured materials
  • Surface modification and molecular manipulation
Specific projects of interest have included:
  • Deposition of atomic clusters on surfaces
  • Development of novel cluster-assembled nanophase materials
  • MBE growth of novel C60-based molecular materials
  • Electron and photon stimulated stimulated processes in molecular films
  • Positioning atoms and manipulating molecules with the Scanning Tunnelling Microscope
  • Controlled cleaning of semiconductor surfaces
  • "Designer" organic molecules deposited on surfaces

Summaries of the some recent results can be found on the Grant summaries page. Several members of the Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory have been awarded prestigious individual fellowships:

Dr Lidija Siller Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellowship
Dr Jens Schmidt Lloyd's of London Research Fellowship
Dr Michael Hunt Leverhulme Special Research Fellowship
Dr Laurens Kuipers European Union Research Fellowship
Dr Pascal Weibel Swiss National Research Fellowship

Richard Palmer has been awarded the 1996 Charles Vernon Boys Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics.