Nanotechnology under the microscope

By Ken Macdonald
BBC Scotland Science Correspondent

media captionHeavily-filtered air and special clothing come as standard in a nanofabrication centre

How can we make the internet greener? How can physics contribute to national security?

These are just two of the questions being answered at Glasgow University's James Watt Nanofabrication Centre.

Here they measure their achievements in nanometres - billionths of a metre.

Now its director, Prof Douglas Paul, has been awarded the prestigious President's Medal by the Institute of Physics.

It's been given to just a handful of scientists, among them the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and the physicist and broadcaster Brian Cox.

The denizens of the nanofabrication centre work in a generously-proportioned clean room.

Heavily-filtered air and special clothing come as standard. When you're dealing in nanometres, a speck of dust can seem the size of a boulder.

It can give the work here something of a science fiction flavour.

image captionIn nanotechnology, a speck of dust can seem the size of a boulder

But Prof Paul says nanotechnology is part of everyday life.

"Most of the transistors that are actually now inside your mobile phone have dimensions that are 22 to 28 nanometres in size," he says.

"And in fact the smallest dimensions might be as small as one or two nanometres.

"So actually everybody is carrying nanotechnology around with them."

The centre is working on the next generation of nanotechnology - theoretical, applied and commercial - with the emphasis on improving everyday life.

The clean room occupies the space once occupied by the laboratory of the pioneering physicist and engineer Lord Kelvin.

In the 1850s he was among the first the publish a paper on the thermo-electric effect - the relationship between electricity and heat.

Today, Douglas Paul's research is building on that to try to create more efficient cars.

"Of the 100% of fuel you put in a car, 75% of that is wasted as heat," he says.

"Forty per cent of that waste heat goes down the exhaust pipe, and we want to take some of that waste heat, put thermo-electrics around the exhaust pipe, turn it into electricity, reduce the fuel consumption and reduce the CO2 emission from cars, buses and all the other vehicles that are around."

image captionProf Paul says mobile phones already carry nanotechnology

The professor is also taking part in European research aimed at making the internet greener by creating more efficient semiconductors.

He says something as simple as using a search engine can use a surprising amount of energy.

"If you sit down and calculate it and look at how the information bounces around the internet, it may actually be up to about half the energy in boiling a kettle to make a cup of tea," he explains.

As we talk in his office, it's difficult not to let the eye stray to the large grey safe against one wall. This is the outward sign of his work advising the UK government on national security.

He can't talk about specific threats, but he explains that physics has implications for things like airport security.

And not just in the areas you might expect, like counter-terrorism.

He adds: "How can you actually try and find out if somebody is carrying Ebola if they walk through Heathrow or Glasgow airport and try and isolate them before they transmit that to many people?

"A lot of this requires scientists to understand what are the threats, how to detect many of these threats, and then explain to the politicians what are the potential ways we can find solutions and try and keep people in the UK safe."

From a nanometric scale to the biggest issues of the day, it's physics that has many unexpected applications.

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