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The future looks small

There is no university or research institution in Israel that does not engage in nanotechnology research. The time has come to concentrate efforts and resources

Raul Teitelbaum 14/08/02 14:54

Let's have some fun with the future. Not as wishful thinking, but one that may change our lives within a decade: nanotechnology. It is said that it will affect our lives in this century, as electricity affected the lives of our ancestors in the last century. Thus, for example, the American weekly "Time" told about a development that turns coal into liquid fuel for use in cars, at a price competitive with regular fuel.
Global corporations such as IBM, Motorola, Lucent, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Intel and others, invest a huge fortune in this technology. Samsung and Sony have already announced the development of new fuel cells as a source of energy for computers and mobile phones.


Where are we in this story?

"In the top ten of the world", says the chief scientist of the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sports, Prof. Hagit Messer Yaron, herself an expert in electricity and electronics from Tel Aviv University.

There is no university or research institution in Israel that does not engage in nano research. At this stage, most of them are basic research, although there are already some applied developments. Recently, at the initiative of Telam (National Research Infrastructures) of the Academy of Sciences, it was decided to conduct a survey: what exists and what should exist in Israel in this field.

Prof. Messer Yaron believes that the time has come to coordinate and concentrate the effort in nanotechnology research, in order to avoid duplication of resources. Especially, because in the 6th framework program for research and development of the European community, in which we participate, the issue was given a very high priority - 1.3 billion euros were allocated for it. Therefore, there is now an Israeli effort to initiate joint research with European bodies, with the aim of winning funding from the fund. First contacts between nanotechnology researchers from Israel and Germany have already begun.

Last January, a new center for nanoscience and nanotechnology was opened at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with an initial investment estimated at approximately 40 million dollars. Similar centers will also be opened this year at the Technion, Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva. "In nano research lies a revolutionary technological potential that will accompany us in the 21st century," says Prof. Uri Benin, head of the Hebrew University's Nano Institute. In some areas, for example in the connection between nanotechnology and biotechnology, Israel has a clear comparative advantage - Prof. Benin believes.

These projects are on the verge of science fiction. About a year ago, Weizmann Institute scientists, led by Prof. Avraham Schnitzer from the Department of Organic Chemistry, succeeded in proving that it is possible to develop an extremely fast molecular memory chip for the computers of the future. The memory unit will be one single molecule, compared to chips built from tens of millions of molecules.

Rehovot specializes in the use of nano to utilize solar and light energies. Among other things, it is about turning coal or wood into liquid or gaseous fuels, and about developing a cheap and efficient method for separating hydrogen from water. Another field is the development of new solar cells, as a source of alternative energy for driving cars and supplying home energy. There is also the development of solar lasers as an energy source for the chemical industry or satellite communications.

These are just titles. At this stage, the nano researchers are holding the research cards very close to their chest, and are not in a hurry to detail the nature of their research - so that they can register patents, and attract investors for further applied development.

A timetable for these imaginative projects? 10-5 years, says Prof. Benin. The pace depends on the progress of scientific research, but also on the economic situation: the willingness of investors to invest in this revolution will, no less, change the face of the world.

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