Interview with Nanotechnologist Dr. Phaedon Avouris, Nobel Prize Nominee in Physics
1) You were recently in Thessaloniki and Greece to receive an honorary doctorate from the International Hellenic University. Having lived abroad for most of the last decades, what strikes you the most when you return home? What are the things you miss?
There are many obvious changes. Some are in the physical environment such as an expansion of the cities but also at a loss of nature. The language is also changing with an increased adaptation of foreign words. Most important however are the cultural changes. I found the people to be more pessimistic and to have less civil concern, as evidenced by the increased pollution and graffiti. Of course, the bad economy may have a lot to do with this, but it is clear to me that loss of community spirit is also a factor.
Of course, I do miss my family and friends and the Greek cuisine, but I think I miss more the old spirit according to which you can achieve what you want, if you work hard for it.
2) Nanotechnology is surrounded by both great promise for the future but also some hype. Would you agree, and which areas do you see as most promising for yielding tangible results in the near future?
These days nanotechnology is a somewhat ambiguous term. Officially, it was defined as the science and technology of materials and devices with one or more critical dimensions below 100 nanometers. Now the term is used by some to denote anything small or ‘novel’. A clear case of successful nanotechnology is provided by the electronics industry. Around 2003, the critical dimension of transistors fell below 100 nanometers. Now it is at about 20 nm and is decreasing. This miniaturization and the concomitant extreme integration of electronic devices has led to the information technology (IT) revolution that we are experiencing in every part of our lives. In the chemical and materials technology, nanoparticles have extensive use as catalysts, coatings, lubricants, stronger composites, etc. In medicine and pharmaceutical industry, medicines are introduced to more selectively target local tumors and other ailments. Minute, sensitive sensors are introduced to monitor and control physiological functions or environmental conditions. Genetic engineering is also benefiting from using the techniques of nanotechnology. I would expect that these areas will continue to advance and new applications will emerge once we understand better the potential of nanostructures.
3) How optimistic are you that in the next 25 years electronics will have moved away from silicon to carbon nanotubes, graphene or some other material as the building block of electronic circuits?
Silicon technology has served us well and will continue to do so for some time to come. However, the critical process of ‘size scaling’ (i.e. miniaturization) of devices, which has been such an effective means of advancement, will eventually reach its limits. A key problem that we face at this point is the huge power dissipation involved in high density chips. This will not signal the end of progress in electronics. Advancements in chip architecture and software will become more critical. However, efforts are on-going worldwide to also find hardware alternatives not based on silicon, or even on charge transport (e.g. spintronics). Which approach will eventually prove most successful depends on many factors, not necessarily based on device performance alone. Changing a major technology is extremely expensive and time consuming. Extremely pure materials, reliable large scale fabrication techniques, cost competitive production and low power consumption are some key elements. The history of scientific progress has taught us that we should continue searching and trying to understand nature. The results are unpredictable.
4) Nanotechnology seems to be facing problems when it comes to developing consistent ways of fabricating nanostructures in large numbers – something that will be needed for mass production. How central a role would you say biology has to play in the coming decades (for instance DNA scaffolding) concerning this issue?
The dominant approach for micro and nano fabrication has been based on lithography. Lithography is one of the most successful technologies ever developed. However, in the few nanometers scale, lithography is reaching its current limits. Photolithography in the extreme ultraviolet is being developed as an ultrafine resolution industrial tool but at very high costs and so far limited throughput. Naturally then people are thinking of bottom-up techniques involving self-assembly processes analogous to those nature uses to assemble a number of biological nanostructures. The process is very difficult. We do not know enough about the weak forces involved in these assembly processes and how to make effective use of them. Large scale production using such techniques is very challenging. The field is developing, however, and some major breakthroughs are to be expected in the future.
5) Is nanotechnology a capital intensive enterprise? Can Greece follow, and in which areas do you think Greece would be wisest to invest?
Many areas of technology are capital intensive and nanotechnology is not an exception. My personal opinion is that Greece should mainly invest at first on its human capital As it is not very realistic at this point to compete in high technology industrial production without that element. For Greece to recover the fastest and less capital demanding way is through investment in education and information technology. Our young people should focus on developing an entrepreneurial spirit and generating new ideas in IT and global business. In principle, a good education, a creative mind, collaborative spirit and a laptop can get you a long way towards self-sufficiency. This of course requires a positive attitude and fighting spirit from the individuals and a supporting governmental environment. I have heard many complaints about the need to reform this environment during my visits. I want to point out that although justified, complaints alone do not necessarily solve problems. Private efforts and volunteerism can accomplish a lot. Communicate, share ideas, propose constructive solutions, share knowledge in solving problems, and be positive. We should never forget that in this current, interconnected world the key currency is knowledge.