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Institute plans to study tiny creations

Researchers need highly specialised microscopes to observe nano-sized materials (SNI/Basel University)

The Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI) has opened for business at Basel University, providing a platform for research on groundbreaking technology.

Funded by the university, the Swiss government and canton Aargau, the institute will focus both on future developments as well as the safe use of nanotechnology.

"We already have a long tradition of nanoscience in Basel, doing basic research. But with financial help from canton Aargau we can now focus on applied research as well and broaden our horizon," said Christian Schönenberger, director of the SNI.

The new institute, which hopes to become a world leader in its field, is an outgrowth of Basel's national centre of competence in nanoscience, the only one of its kind in Switzerland. There are comparable institutes in Germany, Japan and the United States.

Sixty people are working at the interdisciplinary centre, among them ten professors. The annual budget should eventually be approximately SFr20 million ($16 million), with half coming from the university and a quarter each from the federal authorities and canton Aargau.

"A lot of students studying in Basel come from Aargau, which is why the canton considers it important to invest in the university," Schönenberger told swissinfo.

Research

But this is not the only reason the neighbouring canton is officering its financial backing.

"Aargau would like reinforce the ties between its own university of applied sciences and Basel University and increase applied research," said the SNI director. "The canton is also hoping that the institute's projects will benefit companies on its territory."

Projects include optical applications, security features for identification cards, use of nanoparticles to deliver drugs or adhesion properties of nanoparticles on surfaces.

"These projects are typically applied research, so we will be collaborating with Aargau's university of applied sciences, the federally funded Paul Scherrer Institute and partners in industry," he added.

Future

Nanotechnology is often touted as having a big future. According to an article in the Nature science journal this week, there are already more than 300 products using nanotechnology on the market around the world.

But as with most new technologies, the pace of development has outstripped research into potential effects. But Schönenberger said that this aspect has not been forgotten at the new centre.

"This is an important question in Switzerland and at the SNI," he told swissinfo. "For example for our drug delivery project, we are studying the toxicology of the nanoparticles used.

"But this is not unique to nanotechnology. When you explore new territories, there are new risks."

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

A nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre.
A human hair is around 100,000 nanometres wide.

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In brief

Nanoscience and nanotechnology encompass a range of techniques rather than a single discipline, and stretch across the whole spectrum of science, touching on medicine, physics, engineering and chemistry.

The size and scale of the nanotechnology industry is unclear in Switzerland. One reason is that there is no international standard definition of the science, making it hard to determine whether companies use nanotechnology or not.

According to the US-based Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, this technology was incorporated into more than $30 billion (SFr37.3 billion) in manufactured goods in 2005, more than double the previous year's figure.

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