Nanotechnology: a 5 year strategy for Birmingham

1. The Nanotechnology Landscape at the University of Birmingham

Nanotechnology has been identified in the University Research Strategy as one of four key enabling technologies. Birmingham is a world class player in three areas of nanotechnology.

  1. Nanoscience

    Birmingham's nanotechnology activity began with the establishment of the Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory in 1994. Collaborations now extend to Medicine, Biosciences and Environmental Sciences as well as Chemistry and Engineering. Particular themes of research are nanostructured surfaces, clusters and atmospheric particles, atomic manipulation, single molecule science and novel instrumentation.

  2. Micro and nano-fabrication

    The Microengineering and Nanotechnology Research Centre was established in 1998 in Mechanical Engineering. The nanofabrication activity also includes facilities in Electrical Engineering, Physics and Chemistry (chemical lithography). Particular themes of research are micro electrical and mechanical systems (MEMS), sensors, thin films, electron beam lithography and chemical patterning of surfaces.

  3. Micro and nano-particles

    This activity is led by the Centre for Formulation Engineering and includes research in Materials (plasma production of nanoparticles). The emphasis is on the synthesis, manipulation and use of small particles. Particular themes of research are supercritical fluid routes to nanoparticles, formation of nanoparticulate agglomerates and compacts, nanoparticle coatings and modelling and scale-up of such processes.

These areas are the three pillars of Nanotechnology at Birmingham. Considerable progress has recently been made in linking them together under the umbrella of the I2N Centre (Interdisciplinary Innovation Centre for Nanotechnology), originally launched in 2001. A notable strength of the Birmingham activity is the connection to industry, evident in collaborative research in all three research areas, as well as a developing link to the Regional Innovation Strategy (AWM and the Central Technology Belt). Thus Birmingham is well positioned to form a node in the national Micro and Nano Technology network to be established by the DTI.

Other, smaller areas of nanotechnology research at Birmingham cross the whole range of disciplines and include, for example, nanostructured materials, nanoscale analysis, biomaterials, supramolecular chemistry, nanotribology and environmental particles.

2. The 5 year Strategy for Nanotechnology

While Birmingham was an early player in Nanotechnology, the field has become extremely competitive since the late 1990's, both in the UK and worldwide. About 10 UK Universities have established significant nanotechnology activities. In this context, the key to a fruitful 5 year strategy which augments Birmingham's strong position has three components:-

  1. Growth of selected areas of international excellence, represented by the three research pillars identified above, especially to enhance connections (a) between the three pillars and (b) between each of the three pillars and the life and health sciences.

    At present the link between nanotechnology and the Molecules and Materials Research Theme is especially strong. Growth of the interface between nanotechnology and the life sciences will generate strong links to the Genes, Cells and Organisms Research Theme and enhance the links to the Human Disease, Diagnosis and Treatment Research Theme and also the Sustainable Environment, Energy and Resources Research Theme. In the short term, this requires investment in a series of staff appointments as well as advanced equipment and specialist laboratory refurbishment.

  2. Further development of industrial collaborations, IPR exploitation and the regional development agenda (including partnerships with regional HEI's and support for the Regional Centre for Applied Microsystems/Longbridge Technology Park).

    In the short term, this means providing access for companies to the nanotechnology facilities and expertise in the University, e.g., in nanoengineering and surface coatings, through support from AWM and/or the national MNT initiative. In the medium term, it is proposed to establish a Nanotechnology Innovation Centre on campus in its own building. This Centre will house new research and development equipment to support the three research pillars and the broader nanotechnology activity on campus and will also serve industry. It will incorporate a research hotel for companies who wish to engage in short or medium term nanotechnology R&D and a Nanotechnology Incubator for newly formed, e.g., spin-out companies. It will provide a hub and meeting facilities to serve and unite the University nanotechnology community.

  3. Introduction of nanotechnology programs at undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD levels.

    Several Schools already offer modules in nanotechnology as part of their mainstream undergraduate programs or PhD training courses. The development of this trend will allow the University to market attractive undergraduate packages based in specific disciplines as well as a multidisciplinary Masters program in nanotechnology, modules for the EngD programs and short CPD courses for professionals. In all cases, the infusion of Birmingham's frontier research into the contents and modes of delivery of these courses will be highly attractive.

Implementation of the 5 year strategy for nanotechnology will ensure that Birmingham maintains and enhances its leading position in a burgeoning field of academic challenge and technological opportunity.

Graham Davies
Richard Palmer
Jon Preece
Jonathan Seville

30 April 2004