Eindhoven University Receives Grants to Explore Nanotechnology for Microelectronics and Bone Growth

Two Eindhoven University of Technology researchers will receive a Vici grant from NWO, the Dutch organization for scientific research. With his grant of $2 million (1.5 million Euros), Nico Sommerdijk will explore the mechanisms of bone growth. Erwin Kessels will work on new nanotechnology that will be used in products.

Erwin Kessels (l) and Nico Sommerdijk.

In 2009, associate professor Nico Sommerdijk published an article on biomineralization that made the cover of the respected journal Science. He found that certain nanoclusters are the most important building blocks in the growth of shells and bones.
With the NWO grant, Sommerdijk (department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry) will now focus on the formation of bone. He explains, “So far we have been working with calcium carbonate, the material shells are made of. We will focus now on calcium phosphate, the material bones are made of. We hope to be able to understand and mimic the process of bone formation and growth by replacing the biological molecules with polymers.”
One of the goals of the project is to be able to make bone replacement materials. But Sommerdijk is already looking beyond that. “By understanding the processes of nature, we may be able to come up with totally new materials that no one has previously thought of.”
For his research, Sommerdijk uses a unique electron microscope, of which there is only one in the world; the TU/e cryoTitan, manufactured by FEI Company. This machine can make 3D images on the nano scale of processes in fluids, by freezing the samples extremely quickly.
Production on an atomic scale
Nanotechnology is widely regarded as one of the most promising future technologies. But little nano research is aimed at preparing this technology for real production. Erwin Kessels, associate professor in the department of Applied Physics of TU/e, will use his Vici grant to close the gap between lab research and the industrial production of, for instance, solar cells and new nano-electronics.
An example of such a gap is carbon nanotubes, says Kessels. “Research has shown that they are suited for all kinds of electronic applications. But producing nanotubes with the exact right properties is a process that we cannot control well enough yet. Usually a large number of nanotubes are made, from which the suitable one is selected.” While that may be enough for research purposes, it is certainly not enough for industrial production. Kessels says, “We still need a lot of research before we will be able to take a demo version to an industrial and reliable production process.”
Kessels’ work is about the growing of ultra thin layers, just a couple of atoms in thickness. The state of the art in the microelectronics industry is that layers are deposited that completely cover a surface, from which tiny patterns are then etched. Kessels hopes to omit that step, and to deposit nanostructures without etching at all. A first case may be a transistor made of a carbon nanotube, to which the electrodes are attached directly. At the same time, the 36-year old researcher wants to control the material properties on an atomic scale, for maximum performance of the products made this way. For instance, products like solar panels with a higher efficiency.
NWO Vici grants are aimed at researchers who received their PhDs a maximum of fifteen years ago. The Vicis enable grantees to start their own research groups. In 2009 the TU/e also had two of thirty Vici grants. In 2008, three Eindhoven researchers were granted Vicis.