Nanoscale Physics

A research strategy for the next 10 years

(prepared September 2004, updates September 2007)

The Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory (NPRL) was established in 1994 following the appointment of Richard Palmer (REP) from the University of Cambridge to the Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Birmingham. The broad aim of the Lab was "to advance the frontiers of the physics, chemistry and technology of nanometre-scale structures, devices and processes". Formally opened by the Director-General of Research Councils, Professor Sir John Cadogan in May 1996, the NPRL was the first centre for nanoscience to be established in the UK. The original capital investment from the University, the Wolfson Foundation, the European Regional Development Fund and the JREI totalled ~£2.5 million. A successful bid for a further ~£2.5 million was submitted to JIF in 1999; the resulting "Nanoscale Science Facility" (effectively Phase 2 of the NPRL) was formally opened in May 2004. The Laboratory now occupies 800m2 in the Physics East building of the University, including 500m2 of specialised, high quality laboratory space. Outputs from the Lab over the first 10 years include about 180 papers, more than 100 invited talks and 11 patent applications.

The current composition of the Nanoscale Physics group is 4 HEFCE/academic staff - one Professor (Palmer), 2 Lecturers (Guo and Li, the latter supported by industrial funds) and one Research Officer (Robinson) - as well as 9 externally funded Research Fellows and 15 PhD students. Group members come from 15 different countries. External funds also help to support 3 technicians. The group currently holds 3 EPSRC grants, 3 EU grants and one NERC grant and receives substantial sponsorship from three companies. Of the 11 patent applications, 3 have been dropped, 5 relate to materials for next generation lithography (currently sponsored by Rohm and Haas) and 3 relate to novel instruments/devices; an Option to License this bundle of IPR has just been agreed with a party seeking to establish a new US/UK instrument company to supply the international R&D market in nanotechnology.

Updates (Sept 04 - Sept 07)

  • Ziyou Li becomes University-funded Lecturer (1 Jan 05).
  • Andrey Kaplan appointed RCUK Research Fellow (1 Jan 05).
  • Wolfgang Theis appointed Lecturer (1 Oct 07).
  • inanovate, est. 2005, developing protein chips from size-selected clusters; by 2007 premises in Droitwich, Boston and North Carolina.

Scientific Challenges: Current Status
The main challenge in the first 10 years of the Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory has been to master the architecture of truly nanometre-scale systems. This theme underpinned REP's inaugural lecture ("Seven Wonders of a Small World"). Progress in this direction has been excellent; the group has developed a novel toolbox of techniques to create and characterise structures of scale 1-10 nm. The techniques for making nanostructures include deposition of size-selected atomic clusters on surfaces, atomic manipulation with the STM at room temperature, guided self-assembly in molecular systems, femtosecond laser irradiation of surfaces and electron beam writing with novel resists. The novel characterisation techniques include Scanning Probe Energy Loss Spectroscopy (SPELS) and lateral time-of-flight mass spectrometry; these are supported by STM, SEM, TEM, AFM, etc. From the perspective of a forward look, the level of mastery of the architecture of nanoscale systems achieved by the group opens up a diversity of exciting new opportunities for the next 10 years. Clearly, continuing judicious selection of a subset of problems is crucial, especially given the highly competitive nature of this flourishing field. In the following remarks, we focus on three new opportunities merging over the horizon. Of course, our work on the preparation, structure and characterisation of nanoscale systems, including the development of novel instruments and processes, will continue to underpin this effort.

Updates (Sept 04 - Sept 07)

  • Above research theme, "Organizing Atoms", identified (2007) as renewed focus of future research, includes aberration-corrected STEM, UHV SEM and LEEM/PEEM techniques.

Scientific Challenges: New Opportunities

Excited states of nanoscale systems
1-10nm structures are characterised by confined quantum states and large surface to volume ratios, leading to localised electronic states. Now that we can prepared stable, monodispersed and well characterised (ground state) structures on this length scale, e.g., dilute films of size-selected clusters or molecular assemblies, we are in a strong position to attack their excited states via spectroscopic methods. Local electronic measurements are feasible with STM and SPELS; we are also planning to develop "time-resolved" (laser-coupled) STM. Charge injection from the STM into the resonant states of oriented molecules on surfaces will enable us to initiate and probe non-adiabatic dynamics at the single molecule level. Our high harmonic, 100 fsec tunable VUV light source will shortly facilitate pump-probe measurements of the nuclear dynamics of highly excited states, while the 100 asec UK light source we are building with various Universities in London aims to to map real-time electron dynamics in confined systems on a timescale approaching the Bohr period.

The interface to molecular biology
The size of protein molecules typically lies in the range 3-20nm. We have recently demonstrated that individual protein molecules can be immobilised by size-selected clusters on surfaces. Liquid phase AFM imaging and near field optical fluorescence measurements will be combined to characterise the morphology and functionality of quaternary-scale protein complexes, as relevant, e.g., to cell signalling and the immune system. This aspect of proteomics is the regime of molecular biology on which we have chosen to concentrate, and it is almost intractable by X-ray diffraction measurements. The main experimental progress needed in this area is to develop the near-field optics; specifically, we propose to build an external-field coupled scanning near-field optical microscope with 100 fsec time resolution for liquid phase measurements.

Updates (Sept 04 - Sept 07)

  • Successful development of inanovate rapidly translates this protein science into a technology.
  • Basic research in this area broadens to address interface between surface architectures and molecular systems, including catalysis.

Applied research
From the outset we have sought to protect our basic research activity with a "permeable membrane" of applied research. This applied research activity, which has generated our patent portfolio, will continue in a targeted fashion, with two main drivers: (i) increasing attention to the practical applications of selected inventions (in collaboration with industrial partners) and (ii) the need to develop novel tools/processes to sustain innovation in our basic science program. If (i) is successful, it may lead to business growth and thus contribute to the regional regeneration agenda (Central Technology Belt et al). It may also provide opportunities for external investment into our research base.

Updates (Sept 04 - Sept 07)

  • inanovate agrees access to NPRL cluster source 2006/07, independent operation from 2007, leases mass filter from NPRL.
  • Materials Solutions established 2006 with DTI (MNT), AWM and industrial match funding, located in Medical Physics building.
  • Midlands Surface Analysis in process of formation 2007 (with Aston University).

Professor R.E. Palmer
24 September 2004
(updates 3 September 2007)