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Posted: April 29, 2008
Nanotechnology Breakthrough Attracts Global Optics Giant
(Nanowerk News) Like many breakthroughs, research scientist Bill Ward's was a mistake.
It's a mistake that caught the attention of global optics manufacturer Carl Zeiss SMT of Germany, which celebrated the grand opening of its $9 million, 53,000-square-foot Nano Solutions Center last week in Peabody's Centennial Park.
Ward, who helped found a Peabody nanotechnology startup called ALIS, had nearly given up on a decades-old project to channel helium ions toward the smallest of structures as a way to create high-resolution images of them.
But it wasn't until Ward threw a switch on his prototype that the method worked, said his business partner Nick Economou. The research scientist spent the next six months unraveling his mistake to understand why it worked when other methods hadn't.
"Basically, it was a mistake that led to the breakthrough," Economou said.
Carl Zeiss SMT believed so strongly in Ward's design that it decided to headquarter its North American operation in Peabody, where the research scientist conducted his work. The company also named Economou its senior vice president and Ward its chief technical officer.
The German company already offered an array of electron- and ion-beam microscopes. The acquisition of ALIS added a new product, the company's ORION or Ward's helium-ion microscope. The device offers the clearest pictures of the atomic world.
Carl Zeiss was one of a handful of companies courting ALIS after Ward made his microscope work. In fact, Oregon-based nanotech FEI Co., from which ALIS had spun off, also sought to reacquire it.
Ultimately, ALIS and its 36 scientists and employees went with the offer from Carl Zeiss SMT.
"We picked Zeiss and they picked us," Economou said.
Frank Averdung, president of Carl Zeiss SMT, said the company's search to house its North American division ended in Peabody because of its access to a highly skilled work force and proximity to research universities.
"The acquisition of ALIS helped us to make the decision to move here," Averdung said.
Zeiss board member Dirk Stenkamp said ALIS's "revolutionary technology has the potential to really drive us into the next century."
The North American branch currently employs 70, with jobs ranging from engineering to manufacturing to science. But the operation is expected to grow to 200 in Peabody. The business is part of an emerging local niche dubbed the "Ion Alley," Economou said.
Carl Zeiss' helium-ion microscope will have applications in biology, helping scientists better visualize DNA, and in the semiconductor industry.
"We're going to enable them to see what they're actually manufacturing," Economou said.