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Posted: Apr 25, 2006

Nanowerk interview with Ted Sargent

(Nanowerk Spotlight Interview) Nanowerk spoke with Professor Ted Sargent, professor and Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology at the University of Toronto and author of the recently published and highly acclaimed book "The Dance of the Molecules".
How did you get into nanotechnology? I spent my summers (in the early '90's) working on quantum well lasers at Nortel.
Is that when you started 'thinking small'? At Nortel I was frustrated with the constraints, cost, complexity, and danger of epitaxy – the growth of perfect crystals atop other perfect crystals. I thought there had to be something better. That's how I got into the field of colloidal quantum dots. These semiconductor particles are grown in a liquid and can literally be painted onto anything – a chip, a piece of fabric, whatever. They're now at the core of my research. We make solar cells, camera chips, and molecular detectors that use nanotechnology for practical applications.
Tell us about the content of your book. The book begins with a dream: imagining what we could do if we understood the nanoworld so well, and we were so nanodextrous, that we could bring Greta Garbo back to life. This focuses the book onto our present-day limitations: the fact that, so far, we don't fully understand how nanosale structure produces properties, nor do we have complete control over nanometer-sized objects. It then launches in to our recent progress on both fronts: nanoscience, wherein we understand the relationships between atomic- and molecular-scale structure and macroscopic behaviour; and nanotechnology, wherein we use this understanding to create new materials with new properties. The book then explores the applications of nanotechnology in medicine, energy and the environment, and information technology.
So how fast is nanotechnology really moving ahead? Faster than I would ever have imagined. I'll take two examples from my own group's research. The students working on our solar cell project increased performance over one-thousand-fold over less than one year since their first realization of a paintable infrared solar cell a year ago. The post-doctoral fellow leading our project to make the world's first infrared paint-on semiconductor laser met his goals in about one year's work, when none of us knew whether it would even be possible when we originally embarked upon the project.
What is the focus of your research at the moment? We're applying semiconductor nanoparticles to solve four problems: 1) You and I cannot see in the dark - but if we could make cameras that were highly sensitive in the infrared, we could. We're using paint-on infrared photodetectors to make cheap, ubiquitous night-vision cameras. 2) Silicon-based electronic chips will soon hit up against the 'interconnect bottleneck' - the fact that the transistors can locally compute faster than they can communicate globally across the chip. We've made a paint-on infrared laser to allow us to use light for on-chip communications. 3) The sun bathes the earth in enough power that an hour's worth of rays could power the earth for a year; but we do not capture anywhere near this small fraction of the sun's energy with deployed solar cells - they're too expensive per unit of area. We're working to make solar cells cheap and efficient at the same same time using paint-on colloidal quantum dots. 4) The expression of genes in patients reveals the state of disease and allows customized treatment; but the methods to measure gene expression are too costly for many applications. We're working with our collaborator Prof. Shana Kelley at Boston College to make ultrasensitive, highly-multiplexed nucleic acids sensors.
To put it in a nutshell, what do you see as the future of nanotechnology? Turning fascinating science and growing technological agility into real applications that transform people's lives and society.
You are very young, and very successful, what advice would you give to students? Be simultaneously broad and narrow: read widely, accept no limitations on your ability to understand ideas from across disciplines, and interact with a broad cross-section of highly creative people; but at the same time establish yourself as a detailed expert in the area in which yo have the most to contribute in these cross-disciplinary conversations.
By Klaus Sattler, Copyright Nanowerk LLC. All rights reserved.

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