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Nanoscience, a priority for CNRS

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Michel Lannoo Scientific Director of the CNRS Mippu department.(1)


Nanoscience and its counterpart nanotechnology, two disciplines that aim at exploring and exploiting the nanoworld, are evolving rapidly and might well constitute a key to the economic expansion of the 21st century. Already, tens of billions of computer hard disk drives rely on “tunnel magnetoresistance,” a nanoworld phenomenon that was an outcome of discoveries by Albert Fert (2003 CNRS Gold Medalist) and Peter Grunberg, while dozens of recent inventions are exploiting “nanotubes” in electronics or “nanocapsules” for targeted medicine delivery, for example. Making advances in the nanoworld relies on two complementary approaches, namely “top-down” and “bottom-up.” The former is typical of the evolution of microelectronics with a continuous decrease in size of the individual components of an integrated circuit described by Moore's law. By contrast, the latter starts from individual nano-objets to produce large-size structures that may lead to new types of materials with enhanced physical properties and original chemical behavior.

 A combination of these two approaches will most likely lead to substantial progress in the future. Nanoscience is, by nature, a multidisciplinary field. For instance, the elaboration and characterization of individual nano-objets is at the interface between physics and chemistry. Research in nano-electronics, spintronics, and nanophotonics is common to physics and information technology. The fabrication of new nanomaterials with self-assembly techniques requires cooperation between chemists, physicists, and other specialists, depending on the application. Perhaps the most exciting applications of nanoscience are occurring in nanobiology, through the study of the fundamental processes of life, which again is at the frontier between biology, chemistry, and physics.

The broad scientific spectrum of CNRS is ideally suited to the multidisciplinary nature of nanoscience. Indeed CNRS is the only research organization that covers all of the above disciplines as well as human and social sciences which should prove important in studying the social impact of nanotechnology developments. Of course, CNRS is already deeply involved in nanoscience–one of its strategic priorities for the future. Nanoscience research is carried out in 180 CNRS-affiliated laboratories by some 2000 scientists. Together with the Ministry of Research, CNRS supports five central technology facilities together with a number of smaller local facilities. This national network, which also involves other research organizations like the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA),2 should encourage a coherent expansion of this field. French laboratories, and CNRS as a whole, are competitive in the fields of nano-objets, nanoelectronics, molecular electronics, and in many aspects of nanotechnology. These areas should be given continuous support. Of utmost importance are, in particular, original methods for fabrication of nanomaterials as well as applications of nanoscience to biology and medicine, areas where support should be strengthened. For the next several decades, nanoscience is likely to remain a major area of scientific endeavor, mixing basic and applied research, and strongly connected to the high-technology industry. CNRS has, through its structure and resources, a unique opportunity to be an important player in this field at the international level.

 

Notes :

1. The Mippu department covers the areas of mathematics, computer science, physics, earth sciences, and astronomy.
2. Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique.


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