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Column: Small and mighty – why nanoscience is booming in Ireland

Ten years ago, the global market for nano-enabled materials was €420 million. In 2015, it will be $2.5 trillion. Nanoscience is the future and Ireland is very much part of it, writes John Boland.

Image: luchschen via Shutterstock

NANOSCIENCE IS THE the study of materials on the nanoscale, or one million times smaller than a grain of salt. By studying materials at their most basic and modifying the ‘building blocks’ from which they are made, nanoscience researchers can vastly improve the properties of those materials. Plastics can become extremely thin, but incredibly strong. Metals can become thoroughly flexible and malleable, but hugely conductive and light. That process of change opens up a world of possibilities for manufacturing in technology, medicine, energy, pharmaceuticals, transport, bioengineering and more.

CRANN (the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructure and Nanodevices) is Ireland’s leading nanoscience institute, funded by Science Foundation Ireland and based at Trinity College Dublin. In the past ten years, our researchers have leveraged State funding to bring in over €50 million of non-Exchequer investment from international and European sources and have filed over 50 patent applications.

Today, CRANN celebrates its 10th anniversary.

This research is crucial to the economy

It was in 2003 that the then Government decided to prioritise nanoscience research, and established CRANN, as part of Science Foundation Ireland’s CSET (Centre for Science Engineering and Technology) programme. Since then, the Centre has grown from having just six researchers to employing over 300 and from working with 4 companies to over 100 companies, in Ireland and internationally. If Government is looking for an example of an ambitious policy decision that is now paying dividends for the Irish economy, they do not need to look any further than CRANN.

Ranked sixth in the world for nanoscience research and eighth for materials science research, Ireland is now recognised as a leading nanoscience nation. With over 90 per cent of the world’s medical multinationals and 70 per cent of the world’s technology multinationals having a base in Ireland, our national research credentials are extremely attractive, and crucial to the economy.

It is estimated that nanoscience is linked to €15 billion, or 10 per cent, of Ireland’s annual exports and supports 250,000 jobs nationwide. The Government has targeted 20,000 more manufacturing jobs in Ireland by 2016 and undoubtedly, Ireland’s leading nanoscience research can help to create those jobs.

As part of CRANN’s 10-year celebrations, the team created the world’s smallest birthday cake – measure 2,000 times smaller than the full stop at the end of this sentence.

Uploaded by CRANN TCD

Ireland is now experiencing a ‘brain – gain’

Irish researchers are awarded the highest number of European Research Council Starting grants for nanoscience research in the European Union. Following the Euroscience Open Forum in 2012, Dublin has again been chosen to host the EuroNanoForum, Europe’s largest nanoscience event in June this year, an event which will attract 12,000 delegates. In addition, Ireland is now experiencing a ‘brain – gain’, attracting researchers from abroad, to complement our indigenous research base.

Ireland’s nanoscience credentials are strong and they are growing.

At CRANN, we are working with over 100 companies in Ireland and internationally, using our research expertise to help those companies develop novel products and solutions. For example, over the past decade, we have partnered with Intel, working on innovative methods to constantly improve their technologies. We work with Sab Miller, a brewing and beverage company, helping them to improve their packaging to extend the life-span of their products. These partnerships deliver significant mutual benefit for both CRANN and for our partners and will continue to do so for the next decade and beyond.

Smaller, better, faster, stronger

Nanoscience is changing the face of manufacturing, leading to smaller, smarter, more durable and more efficient products and it is a strong linkage between academia and business that is driving that progress. It is nanoscience that is allowing smart devices to become smaller and smaller, yet to store more information. It is nanoscience that is leading to smaller, more sophisticated medical devices like heart stents, with greater lifespans.

Nanoscience is leading to lighter, yet stronger aeroplanes that consume less fuel. It is leading to technological developments like computers with advanced memory and facial recognition, laptops and smart-phones that can be rolled up like newspapers, bathroom mirrors and windows that can become television screens. It could lead to sensors that detect diseases from a person’s breath, or to coatings for ships and tankers that cannot rust.

These are advances that are happening now and they are happening worldwide. By investing in nanoscience; our health, our environment and our communications will be vastly improved.

Nanoscience is the future

Europe has recognised this. This year, the European Commission has invested €1 billion in the Graphene Flagship Project, identifying graphene, one layer of graphite found in pencil lead, as a ‘product of the future’. Ireland has a leading role in that project. The Irish Government has recognised this too, protecting science investment, even in difficult economic times. Science Foundation Ireland must be commended for its commitment and vision, in recognising that protecting scientific funding can also protect and grow the Irish economy.

Ten years ago, the global market for nano-enabled materials was €420 million. In 2015, it will be $2.5 trillion. Nanoscience is the future. Ireland is very much part of it.

I look forward to another ten years of success.

Professor John Boland is Director of CRANN, Ireland’s leading nanoscience institute based at Trinity College Dublin.

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