From Nanoscale Structure to Nanoscale Function (NS2NF)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Materials

Abstract

As we gain ever-greater control of materials on a very small scale, so a new world of possibilities opens up to be studied for their scientific interest and harnessed for their technological benefits. In science and technology nano often denotes tiny things, with dimensions measured in billionths of metres. At this scale structures have to be understood in terms of the positions of individual atoms and the chemical bonds between them. The flow of electricity can behave like waves, with the effects adding or subtracting like ripples on the surface of a pond into which two stones have been dropped a small distance apart. Electrons can behave like tiny magnets, and could provide very accurate timekeeping in a smartphone. Carbon nanotubes can vibrate like guitar strings, and just as the pitch of a note can be changed by a finger, so they can be sensitive to the touch of a single molecule. In all these effects, we need to understand how the function on the nanoscale relates to the structure on the nanoscale.

This requires a comprehensive combination of scientific skills and methods. First, we have to be able to make the materials which we shall use. This is the realm of chemistry, but it also involves growth of new carbon materials such as graphene and single-walled carbon nanotubes. Second, we need to fabricate the tiny devices which we shall measure. Most commonly we use a beam of electrons to pattern the structures which we need, though there are plenty of other methods which we use as well. Third, we need to see what we have made, and know whether it corresponds to what we intended. For this we again use beams of electrons, but now in microscopes that can image how individual atoms are arranged. Fourth, we need to measure how what we have made functions, for example how electricity flows through it or how it can be made to vibrate. A significant new development in our laboratory is the use of machine learning for choosing what to measure next. We have set ourselves the goal that within five years the machine will decide what the next experiment should be to the standard of a second-year graduate student.

The Platform Grant renewal 'From Nanoscale Structure to Nanoscale Function' will provide underpinning support for a remarkable team of researchers who bring together exactly the skills set which is needed for this kind of research. It builds on the success of the current Platform Grant 'Molecular Quantum Devices'. This grant has given crucial support to the team and to the development of their careers. The combination of skills, and the commitment to working towards shared goals, has empowered the team to make progress which would not have been possible otherwise. For example, our team's broad range of complementary skills were vital in allowing us to develop a method, now patented, for making nanogaps in graphene. This led to reproducible and stable methods of making molecular quantum devices, the core subject of that grant. The renewal of the Platform Grant will underpin other topics that also build on achievements of the current grant, and which require a similar set of skills to determine how function on the nanoscale depends on structure on the nanoscale.

You can get a flavour of the research to be undertaken by the questions which motivate the researchers to be supported by the grant. Here is a selection. Can we extend quantum control to bigger things? Can molecular scale magnets be controlled by a current? How do molecules conduct electricity? How can we pass information between light and microwaves? How can we measure a thousand quantum devices in a single experiment? Are the atoms in our devices where we want them? Can computers decide what to measure next? As we make progress in questions like these, so we shall better understand how structure on the nanoscale gives rise to function on the nanoscale. And that understanding will in turn provide the basis for new discoveries and new technologies.

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from this research?
1. The industry sector will benefit through the ability of our quantum nanomaterials to deliver modes of device performance that would not be possible otherwise. We shall continue to contribute to chip-scale atomic clocks, low-energy computing, genome sequencing, and phase-change memory. Our developments in automation of experimental control will bring benefit to UK spinout companies developing hardware for machine learning and software for biology research. UK industry will benefit from researchers who have training and experience in integrating the range of skills in NS2NF, and from engagement with future academics in these areas who understand the requirements of technological innovation.
2. We shall enable the wider public to enjoy learning about our research and its potential applications. Our audiences will include school students, teachers, and industrialists, as well as opinion leaders and decision makers. Many aspects of our research lend themselves well to public engagement. Our microscopy images are readily assimilated by all ages, and we shall use them to show the structure of the materials whose function we shall then present. Nanoscience and quantum science are deeply exciting fields for aspiring scientists in late secondary school and undergraduate level. AI will make huge changes in society, from employment and transport to health care and care of the elderly, and the public is entitled to be well informed by those contributing to the developments.

How might they benefit from this research?
1. We shall have channels for exploitation through our Project Partners and through Oxford University Innovation Ltd. NQIT will provide an excellent gateway to industries interested in quantum technologies. Between us we already have three spin-out companies, and links with other industries in the UK and USA. We are privileged to have a Board of Advisors which contains top leaders in Europe in venture capital, industrial science, and university technology transfer. Our Advisory Board meetings will include regular review of the technology readiness of our results and ideas, and of suitable contacts to approach with exploitation-ready developments.
1. We shall use every available channel of communication, from school visits locally and nationally to exhibits at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and the Science Museum Group. We shall make podcasts and animation videos explaining our research, to reach interested adults and the next generation of school students. We shall use both formal and personal contacts with industry leaders, government, parliamentarians, and the Royal Society. For economic, ethical and social issues related to AI, we shall engage with leading philosophers and with members of the House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence.

Publications

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