Why nanotech is sexier than ever

Why nanotech is sexier than ever

Why nanotech is sexier than ever

Professor Thomas Nann recently took up his new post as director of New Zealand’s renowned MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. He answered these questions from the Herald. You recently arrived in Wellington following a tenure as director of the Australian National Fabrication Facility. Can you tell us about the kind of work that ANFF leads? Leading the South Australian node of the ANFF was only part of my duties; I’ve also been Associate Director of the Ian Wark Research Institute and an active academic at the University of South Australia. The ANFF focuses on providing research capabilities to Australian scientists. The facility comprises of eight “nodes”, where each node specialises on certain aspects of micro- and nanofabrication. The basic idea of the ANFF is to provide world-class facilities to all Australian researchers, which individual universities would otherwise not be able to afford. At the moment, we are in the process of negotiating a memorandum of understanding between ANFF and the MacDiarmid Institute, which will enable New Zealand’s scientists to access the ANFF facilities as well. The focus of my work with the ANFF was on enabling research. The other part of my work was dedicated to leading research and research strategy. This is a combination that I have always loved and has provided me with great experience for leading the complex research environment of the MacDiarmid Institute.

Ahead of coming to MacDiarmid, what was its profile among Australian scientists? Does it have a strong reputation beyond our shores? The MacDiarmid Institute has an outstanding international reputation of excellence in the area of materials and nano-sciences. In my opinion, three major factors shaped this reputation: the institute’s continuing success for more than a decade, the investigators, which are New Zealand’s best in this field of research, and MacDiarmid’s international conference series AMN, which attracts world-class scientists and showcases New Zealand’s research to the world. I don’t think I exaggerate if I say that the MacDiarmid Institute is perceived as one of the best of its kind in the southern hemisphere. What was it about the institute that attracted you, and appealed to you, personally? And what has impressed you about it so far? Having the opportunity to lead a prestigious institution such as the MacDiarmid Institute is very attractive in itself of course. Nevertheless, for me, the most attractive factor was and is the people. I already knew (and collaborated with) a number of MacDiarmid investigators before I came to New Zealand. I was impressed with the superb standard of the research and by the collaborative and friendly spirit. I firmly believe that collaboration across disciplines is fundamental for excellent and meaningful research outcomes. The people of the MacDiarmid Institute make it easy to undertake world-class research in a collaborative and diverse environment. After my first couple of weeks, I still find the MacDiarmid Institute very attractive and I am looking forward contributing to its success story. As director, what role will you be playing in the running of the institute? And are there any new directions you’d like to take it in? For me, the overarching goal of my leadership is that the institute continues to do world-leading research, trains New Zealand’s future leaders and last but not least impacts positively on New Zealand’s economy. The previous director, Professor Kate McGrath, has left the institute in excellent shape and many of these things are already happening. For example, we are proud that Dr Michelle Dickinson (founder of OMGTech) is one of our associate investigators. Michelle does a great job in getting kids excited about science. Also, we are currently in the process of spinning out several companies. All of this allows me to hit the ground running and take the institute to the next level. In response to your question, I’d like to say that I’d rather focus our efforts on our areas of strength and success than taking fundamentally new directions. Also, I would like to put more focus on engagement with society and industry. I dream of a MacDiarmid Institute that has on top of its reputation of outstanding fundamental science, strong connections to society and industry and is the “place to go” for finding solutions for problems in the area of materials and nanotechnology. You’ll also be holding an academic role as Professor at Victoria University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. How will you go about juggling these positions? Juggling an academic position and leadership responsibility is not new to me and I have to confess that I rather enjoy it. Being an active academic has its benefits when it comes to leading a research institute. Hands-on involvement with research prevents me from losing contact with the reality and day-to-day challenges of leading an active research group. Besides, I really enjoy my research and would not like to miss it. Likewise, having leadership responsibility for the MacDiarmid Institute gives me a big picture perspective and impacts on my research by helping me to focus on relevant issues. Also, I have to say that I have a great management team that helps me to juggle this double role. Your own work has revolved around the synthesis, characterisation, and application of nanomaterials. In layman’s terms, can you give a little insight into this research? The fascinating thing about nanomaterials is that they have size-dependent properties, which cannot be found in the equivalent bulk materials. For example, these properties can be tune-able optical, electronic or magnetic ones. What I am trying to do with my research is to study new nanomaterials with a view to use them to help to solve some of humanities big challenges – in particular in the areas of energy and health. In collaboration with many other groups, we make nanomaterials that improve the efficiency of solar cells, batteries or contrast agents for medical imaging. Why is it an exciting time to be in nanotechnology and how might it shape our future? Is nanotechnology becoming a “sexy” field of science? I would argue that nanotechnology has been “sexy” for quite a while. In my opinion, what distinguishes nanoscience and technology from many other “hypes” is that it is not just some scientific fashion, but a whole discipline in itself, which has been recognised only about 15 to 20 years ago. The new properties that I mentioned earlier (for the experts: they are called “mesosocopic” properties) are far from being fully understood and I dare say that we have just scratched the surface so far. Furthermore, the nano-world is the place where disciplines meet. Important things happen in biology, medicine, physics and chemistry at the nano-scale and more often than not, these effects cannot be clearly assigned to one of the classical disciplines. Many nanomaterials are already part of our daily lifes. They are crucial parts of a broad range of applications as diverse as mobile phones or sunscreen. Finding and exploring new nanomaterials paves the way for new products and the associated advanced manufacturing industry. In my opinion, it is crucial for New Zealand’s future economy to build a strong and diverse high-tech industry base to maintain our standard of living and competitiveness. I hope that the MacDiarmid Institute will be a strong contributor to this, ranging from fundamental research into advanced materials and nanotechnology over dissemination and education to supporting spin-out companies and existing industry. For me, this whole process, from discovery over development to commercialisation of (nano-) technology is very exciting. Lastly, can you tell us a little about your family and personal life? What are your hobbies and what might we find you doing outside of work? I am happily married to Herrad and we’ve got three teenaged boys (two of them are already at university). One thing we all love to do is skiing (we lived very close to great skiing slopes in Germany). I also enjoy all sorts of outdoor activities, especially cycling and hiking. Like most chemists, I like to cook. What can be better than cooking a really fancy dinner and enjoying it with some good friends over the course of an evening? Herrad and I also enjoy arts, music and literature. One of the things I’d like to do when I am retired is to write a novel.

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