Nanotechnology in Australia
What is nanotechnology anyway?
Separating the science from the science fiction is not always so easy in the fast growing field of nanotechnology – it's the doomsday predictions that get the most attention in the media, like the micro-Frankenstein scenario of nano-robots turning the world into grey goo.
What's certainly true is that nanotechnology will be the next technological revolution, dramatically changing all areas of society over the next decade. The current level of investment in North America, Europe and Asia supports this vision. So what is nanotechnology, really?
The most publicised vision is the least likely – the concept of tiny nano-robots swimming around in our bloodstreams keeping us healthy or, alternatively for the doomsayers, going terribly wrong. These ideas stem from proposals that atoms and molecules could act as self-assembling machinery, performing production tasks at the nanoscale. Although some progress is being made along these lines it will be many years, if at all, before we see such technologies commercially available.
In reality an entire industry has already developed independent of the nano-bots, with an increasing number of products entering the market. Sun-screens that are clear, cosmetics with UV protecting properties, stain-proof cloths, even the energy-storage devices in your mobile phone and other electronic devices are all examples of commercially available nanotechnologies.
Nanotechnology then is about using our understanding of the world at the scale of atoms and molecules (the basic building blocks of nature) to manufacture materials and products with unusual and beneficial properties. This is where the revolution is already taking place.
At another level, nanotechology is a manufacturing process and can be applied to the way many, already familiar, products are made. Rather than manufacturing from the ‘top-down’, taking a large piece of material and chiselling away to the final product, nanotechnology strives to manufacture from the ‘bottom-up’. By building products starting from nature's basic building blocks, atoms and molecules, materials can be created with amazing properties and performance. Take, for example, the flexible electronics revolution. Here, electronic circuits can be printed onto flexible plastic backing materials promising cheap electronics that can be used in many applications such as flexible, portable displays to replace newspapers and other print media.
Becoming a Nanotechnologist
How do you become a part of this technological revolution ? At its core, nanotechnology is about working at the scale of atoms and molecules. A good knowledge of the properties and behaviour of the world at this scale is important, in other words science at the nanoscale. This knowledge cuts across the traditional science disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology, incorporating elements from each. Physics and chemistry play a central role, providing a detailed understanding of the behaviour of atoms and molecules. Elements from biology provide the inspiration for new nanotechnologies – nature is after all the original nanotechnologist and has evolved all manner of nanoscale technologies. The elastic protein that allows fleas to jump incredible distances, for example, has been copied to make an elastic material with very unusual and useful properties.
So studying science is a prerequisite for working in nanotechnology, and a strong science background from high-school through to undergraduate degree level is the starting point. Because there is a great deal of nanotechnology at the research, or research and development level, a higher degree with a component emphasising research methods can be an excellent entry into technology development.. Alternatively, an understanding and awareness of the commercial world can be a significant selling point to employers, and business or similar strands combined with a science degree make a powerful combination.
Nanotechnology degrees in Australia – A World first
In 2000 Australia set a world-first by offering an undergraduate degree specifically in nanotechnology at The Flinders University of South Australia. There are now a number of universities that offer nanotechnology courses, including The University of Technology Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Western Sydney, Curtin University, La Trobe, RMIT.
These degrees tend to be multidisciplinary in nature and draw on elements from across the traditional science disciplines. They all tend to require, or assume, a strong science background from high school including physics or chemistry. The differences are how the components of physics, chemistry and biology are woven together and the balance between traditional science and nanotechnology specific subjects within the course structure.
Three years is a short time to cover all aspects of nanotechnology and so different institutions tend to focus on different areas aligned with their own institutional research strengths and facilities. The emphasis at The University of Technology Sydney (UTS), for example, is on materials physics and science. Research at UTS is leading to the development of novel materials that react to, or interact with, light for such diverse applications as energy efficiency and the next generation of electronics. One of the strengths of UTS is the excellent nanoscale imaging facilities in its Microstructural Analysis Unit and this is also incorporated into the undergraduate degree program.
The degrees are either three or four years full-time, the four year degrees meaning you sign up for an honours degree from the start with the fourth year generally containing a substantial research portion. Some of the universities have separated these two components offering a three-year undergraduate degree and a stand-alone one-year research based honours degree.
In addition to the obvious science component, some nanotechnology degrees offer sub-strands or subjects relating to commercial topics such as intellectual property and basic skills in business and commerce. It is important to choose a course that strikes a good balance between nanotechnology and commerce and fulfils your needs in terms of a career path post graduation.
Nanotechnology with its fantastic applications has incredible potential to transform our lives in many ways.
If being at the edge of a revolution in science sounds enticing then a degree in nanotechnology may just be the one you’ve been searching for.