Keeping pace with the fast-moving world of nanotechnology

Two rubber gloved hands, each with a pair of tweezers, together hold up a small square of paper-thin material.

Keeping pace with the fast-moving world of nanotechnology

A new facility at Queen’s University aims to make it easier for researchers to move their nanotechnologies from the lab to the real world faster
April 24, 2015

Making new things has always been at the heart of innovation, but when the scale of design and manufacture is reduced to the nano-level, a new world of possibilities opens up. Think, for example, of ultra-thin coatings to prevent windshields from frosting up and metal from corroding, or new devices to analyze human cells and chemical compounds at the atomic level for disease detection and drug development.

These are the types of nanotechnologies that will emerge from the Kingston Nano-Fabrication Lab (KNFL), a brand-new, 3,000-square-foot, $5 million research facility located at the Queen’s University Innovation Park. The lab includes $2.5 million in new CFI-funded custom equipment for fabricating and prototyping new nano-scale inventions to get them to market quicker.

“We're making devices, films, coatings, and materials, and examining their properties at the nanoscale,” says Ian McWalter, President and CEO of CMC Microsystems, which manages the operations of KNFL. “This fundamental materials research spills over into experiments of great use to industry, which then looks at how to commercialize the research results.”

Take, for example, the possibilities presented by KNFL’s laser micromachining system. “This new tool could be used to engrave channels into a piece of glass or polymer to produce a microfluidic device,” says Andrew Fung, Client Technology Advisor for Microsystems and Nanotechnology at CMC. Microfluidic devices take advantage of the behaviour of fluids at a very small scale to create things like “lab-on-a-chip” technologies that can be used to cheaply and quickly diagnose diseases in developing countries, among many other things. “Microfluidics grew out of silicon-based fabrication, which costs a lot of money,” explains Fung. “These other materials are lower cost, and can be single use, consumable, and disposable for a medical device.”

Much of KNFL’s new equipment was selected to enable rapid prototyping of new nanotechnologies. “Prototypes can be ready within hours or a day, instead of days or weeks. It shortens the whole innovation process so researchers can design, make, test, and get the information they need much faster,” says Fung.

The KNFL is also part of Embedded Systems Canada (emSYSCAN), a $50-million, five-year project aimed at shortening the microsystems development cycle. It involves more than 350 university researchers at 37 institutions across Canada’s National Design Network (NDN), which enables multidisciplinary research and collaboration through shared technologies and expertise.

The KNFL’s open-access model is aimed specifically at supporting the NDN. “The idea is to make [expertise and tools] more available to non-experts and to overcome barriers such as lab training to access this equipment,” says McWalter. “Through the service aspect of our lab, you wouldn't necessarily twiddle the knobs yourself, but you would contract the lab to do things for you.” This provides vital learning opportunities for students while giving researchers a more efficient means to an end — accessing the equipment they need without having to invest the time and effort to learn how to use it.

Ultimately, the goal is to move technology out of the lab into real life. “One of our fundamental goals is to help researchers and companies actually make things,” McWalter affirms. “The belief here is that it continues to be very important that we are able to make advanced devices and products here in Canada!”