Tag Archives: University of Alberta

Canada: Happy 150th anniversary!

There’s a bit of fun in the title for Jennifer Pascoe’s June 27, 2017 University of Alberta news release, (assuming you’re familiar with the opening words for Canada’s national anthem: “O Canada!”),

Nan-Oh-Canada

At just 32 atoms and visible only through a million-dollar scanning tunneling microscope, a tiny maple leaf created by UAlberta PhD student Roshan Achal illustrates the next wave of green technology, all while showing patriotic pride.

Invisible to the naked eye, the little leaf is pulling triple duty: celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, attempting a world record, and—with critical implications for our technology-driven information society—providing critical steps towards the next generation of smaller and faster computers.

“It’s super cool and super Canadian and demonstrates our strength and skill in this niche of nanotechnology,” said Achal. “Almost no one else in the world can do it this well.”

Unlike other ultra-small atomic creations, this maple leaf retains its structure at room temperature.

A tiny act of patriotism

At ten nanometres in width, the leaf is roughly 100 times smaller than the world’s smallest national flag—created at the University of Waterloo in September 2016—10,000 times smaller than a human hair, and 53 million times smaller than the world’s largest maple leaf.

The leaf demonstrates the technique of building structures atom by atom (via something called scanning tunneling microscopy), which is being used to create and study circuitry to make smaller computational components while simultaneously speeding them up. In this particular niche of nanotechnology, Canada rates high on the international stage, with the University of Alberta leading the way.

“It’s hard to imagine, because it’s so small, but picture a surface almost like bubble wrap,” explained Achal of the silicon crystal wafer on which the leaf is patterned. “The bubbles are actually hydrogen atoms bonded to the surface, and we are able to pop those bubbles to create patterns.”

Nano pioneers

Achal is working on perfecting that patterning process to make atomic structures which will help revolutionize the next generation of computing by consuming less power. He’s using an ultra-sharp tool, a tip just one atom in width, which was perfected by his supervisor, UAlberta physics professor Robert Wolkow, whom Achal calls a “visionary.”

A pioneer in scanning tunneling microscopy technology, Wolkow already has a Guinness World Record for the nano-tip, the world’s sharpest man-made object, which provides unparalleled precision for patterning electronic circuits.

Achal explained the team wanted to do something to demonstrate their technological capabilities, but also something fun and meaningful to mark the occasion of Canada 150.

While they wait to hear back from Guinness World Records with an official nod to their small sculpture, the scientists continue to perfect their technique, with significant implications for next generation computing. This capability is now being put to commercial use by local spin-off Quantum Silicon Incorporated to make revolutionary ultra-fast and efficient silicon electronic devices.

It’s nice to see the enthusiasm although calling Wolkow ‘a visionary’ seems a little over the top especially with all of the other exuberance (super Canadian?). In any event, there are very few visionaries, maybe Wolkow could have been described as amazing, groundbreaking, and/or extraordinary?

Getting back to the point: Happy 150th Canada Day July 1, 2017!

h/t June 27, 2017 news item on Nanowerk.

Vector Institute and Canada’s artificial intelligence sector

On the heels of the March 22, 2017 federal budget announcement of $125M for a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, the University of Toronto (U of T) has announced the inception of the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in a March 28, 2017 news release by Jennifer Robinson (Note: Links have been removed),

A team of globally renowned researchers at the University of Toronto is driving the planning of a new institute staking Toronto’s and Canada’s claim as the global leader in AI.

Geoffrey Hinton, a University Professor Emeritus in computer science at U of T and vice-president engineering fellow at Google, will serve as the chief scientific adviser of the newly created Vector Institute based in downtown Toronto.

“The University of Toronto has long been considered a global leader in artificial intelligence research,” said U of T President Meric Gertler. “It’s wonderful to see that expertise act as an anchor to bring together researchers, government and private sector actors through the Vector Institute, enabling them to aim even higher in leading advancements in this fast-growing, critical field.”

As part of the Government of Canada’s Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, Vector will share $125 million in federal funding with fellow institutes in Montreal and Edmonton. All three will conduct research and secure talent to cement Canada’s position as a world leader in AI.

In addition, Vector is expected to receive funding from the Province of Ontario and more than 30 top Canadian and global companies eager to tap this pool of talent to grow their businesses. The institute will also work closely with other Ontario universities with AI talent.

(See my March 24, 2017 posting; scroll down about 25% for the science part, including the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy of the budget.)

Not obvious in last week’s coverage of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy is that the much lauded Hinton has been living in the US and working for Google. These latest announcements (Pan-Canadian AI Strategy and Vector Institute) mean that he’s moving back.

A March 28, 2017 article by Kate Allen for TorontoStar.com provides more details about the Vector Institute, Hinton, and the Canadian ‘brain drain’ as it applies to artificial intelligence, (Note:  A link has been removed)

Toronto will host a new institute devoted to artificial intelligence, a major gambit to bolster a field of research pioneered in Canada but consistently drained of talent by major U.S. technology companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

The Vector Institute, an independent non-profit affiliated with the University of Toronto, will hire about 25 new faculty and research scientists. It will be backed by more than $150 million in public and corporate funding in an unusual hybridization of pure research and business-minded commercial goals.

The province will spend $50 million over five years, while the federal government, which announced a $125-million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy in last week’s budget, is providing at least $40 million, backers say. More than two dozen companies have committed millions more over 10 years, including $5 million each from sponsors including Google, Air Canada, Loblaws, and Canada’s five biggest banks [Bank of Montreal (BMO). Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce ({CIBC} President’s Choice Financial},  Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Scotiabank (Tangerine), Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Canada Trust)].

The mode of artificial intelligence that the Vector Institute will focus on, deep learning, has seen remarkable results in recent years, particularly in image and speech recognition. Geoffrey Hinton, considered the “godfather” of deep learning for the breakthroughs he made while a professor at U of T, has worked for Google since 2013 in California and Toronto.

Hinton will move back to Canada to lead a research team based at the tech giant’s Toronto offices and act as chief scientific adviser of the new institute.

Researchers trained in Canadian artificial intelligence labs fill the ranks of major technology companies, working on tools like instant language translation, facial recognition, and recommendation services. Academic institutions and startups in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Edmonton boast leaders in the field, but other researchers have left for U.S. universities and corporate labs.

The goals of the Vector Institute are to retain, repatriate and attract AI talent, to create more trained experts, and to feed that expertise into existing Canadian companies and startups.

Hospitals are expected to be a major partner, since health care is an intriguing application for AI. Last month, researchers from Stanford University announced they had trained a deep learning algorithm to identify potentially cancerous skin lesions with accuracy comparable to human dermatologists. The Toronto company Deep Genomics is using deep learning to read genomes and identify mutations that may lead to disease, among other things.

Intelligent algorithms can also be applied to tasks that might seem less virtuous, like reading private data to better target advertising. Zemel [Richard Zemel, the institute’s research director and a professor of computer science at U of T] says the centre is creating an ethics working group [emphasis mine] and maintaining ties with organizations that promote fairness and transparency in machine learning. As for privacy concerns, “that’s something we are well aware of. We don’t have a well-formed policy yet but we will fairly soon.”

The institute’s annual funding pales in comparison to the revenues of the American tech giants, which are measured in tens of billions. The risk the institute’s backers are taking is simply creating an even more robust machine learning PhD mill for the U.S.

“They obviously won’t all stay in Canada, but Toronto industry is very keen to get them,” Hinton said. “I think Trump might help there.” Two researchers on Hinton’s new Toronto-based team are Iranian, one of the countries targeted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel bans.

Ethics do seem to be a bit of an afterthought. Presumably the Vector Institute’s ‘ethics working group’ won’t include any regular folks. Is there any thought to what the rest of us think about these developments? As there will also be some collaboration with other proposed AI institutes including ones at the University of Montreal (Université de Montréal) and the University of Alberta (Kate McGillivray’s article coming up shortly mentions them), might the ethics group be centered in either Edmonton or Montreal? Interestingly, two Canadians (Timothy Caulfield at the University of Alberta and Eric Racine at Université de Montréa) testified at the US Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Feb. 10 – 11, 2014 meeting, the Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology. Still speculating here but I imagine Caulfield and/or Racine could be persuaded to extend their expertise in ethics and the human brain to AI and its neural networks.

Getting back to the topic at hand the ‘AI sceneCanada’, Allen’s article is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time.

Kate McGillivray’s March 29, 2017 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online provides more details about the Canadian AI situation and the new strategies,

With artificial intelligence set to transform our world, a new institute is putting Toronto to the front of the line to lead the charge.

The Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, made possible by funding from the federal government revealed in the 2017 budget, will move into new digs in the MaRS Discovery District by the end of the year.

Vector’s funding comes partially from a $125 million investment announced in last Wednesday’s federal budget to launch a pan-Canadian artificial intelligence strategy, with similar institutes being established in Montreal and Edmonton.

“[A.I.] cuts across pretty well every sector of the economy,” said Dr. Alan Bernstein, CEO and president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the organization tasked with administering the federal program.

“Silicon Valley and England and other places really jumped on it, so we kind of lost the lead a little bit. I think the Canadian federal government has now realized that,” he said.

Stopping up the brain drain

Critical to the strategy’s success is building a homegrown base of A.I. experts and innovators — a problem in the last decade, despite pioneering work on so-called “Deep Learning” by Canadian scholars such as Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton, a former University of Toronto professor who will now serve as Vector’s chief scientific advisor.

With few university faculty positions in Canada and with many innovative companies headquartered elsewhere, it has been tough to keep the few graduates specializing in A.I. in town.

“We were paying to educate people and shipping them south,” explained Ed Clark, chair of the Vector Institute and business advisor to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The existence of that “fantastic science” will lean heavily on how much buy-in Vector and Canada’s other two A.I. centres get.

Toronto’s portion of the $125 million is a “great start,” said Bernstein, but taken alone, “it’s not enough money.”

“My estimate of the right amount of money to make a difference is a half a billion or so, and I think we will get there,” he said.

Jessica Murphy’s March 29, 2017 article for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) news online offers some intriguing detail about the Canadian AI scene,

Canadian researchers have been behind some recent major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. Now, the country is betting on becoming a big player in one of the hottest fields in technology, with help from the likes of Google and RBC [Royal Bank of Canada].

In an unassuming building on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, Geoff Hinton laboured for years on the “lunatic fringe” of academia and artificial intelligence, pursuing research in an area of AI called neural networks.

Also known as “deep learning”, neural networks are computer programs that learn in similar way to human brains. The field showed early promise in the 1980s, but the tech sector turned its attention to other AI methods after that promise seemed slow to develop.

“The approaches that I thought were silly were in the ascendancy and the approach that I thought was the right approach was regarded as silly,” says the British-born [emphasis mine] professor, who splits his time between the university and Google, where he is a vice-president of engineering fellow.

Neural networks are used by the likes of Netflix to recommend what you should binge watch and smartphones with voice assistance tools. Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI used them to win against a human in the ancient game of Go in 2016.

Foteini Agrafioti, who heads up the new RBC Research in Machine Learning lab at the University of Toronto, said those recent innovations made AI attractive to researchers and the tech industry.

“Anything that’s powering Google’s engines right now is powered by deep learning,” she says.

Developments in the field helped jumpstart innovation and paved the way for the technology’s commercialisation. They also captured the attention of Google, IBM and Microsoft, and kicked off a hiring race in the field.

The renewed focus on neural networks has boosted the careers of early Canadian AI machine learning pioneers like Hinton, the University of Montreal’s Yoshua Bengio, and University of Alberta’s Richard Sutton.

Money from big tech is coming north, along with investments by domestic corporations like banking multinational RBC and auto parts giant Magna, and millions of dollars in government funding.

Former banking executive Ed Clark will head the institute, and says the goal is to make Toronto, which has the largest concentration of AI-related industries in Canada, one of the top five places in the world for AI innovation and business.

The founders also want it to serve as a magnet and retention tool for top talent aggressively head-hunted by US firms.

Clark says they want to “wake up” Canadian industry to the possibilities of AI, which is expected to have a massive impact on fields like healthcare, banking, manufacturing and transportation.

Google invested C$4.5m (US$3.4m/£2.7m) last November [2016] in the University of Montreal’s Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms.

Microsoft is funding a Montreal startup, Element AI. The Seattle-based company also announced it would acquire Montreal-based Maluuba and help fund AI research at the University of Montreal and McGill University.

Thomson Reuters and General Motors both recently moved AI labs to Toronto.

RBC is also investing in the future of AI in Canada, including opening a machine learning lab headed by Agrafioti, co-funding a program to bring global AI talent and entrepreneurs to Toronto, and collaborating with Sutton and the University of Alberta’s Machine Intelligence Institute.

Canadian tech also sees the travel uncertainty created by the Trump administration in the US as making Canada more attractive to foreign talent. (One of Clark’s the selling points is that Toronto as an “open and diverse” city).

This may reverse the ‘brain drain’ but it appears Canada’s role as a ‘branch plant economy’ for foreign (usually US) companies could become an important discussion once more. From the ‘Foreign ownership of companies of Canada’ Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Historically, foreign ownership was a political issue in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was believed by some that U.S. investment had reached new heights (though its levels had actually remained stable for decades), and then in the 1980s, during debates over the Free Trade Agreement.

But the situation has changed, since in the interim period Canada itself became a major investor and owner of foreign corporations. Since the 1980s, Canada’s levels of investment and ownership in foreign companies have been larger than foreign investment and ownership in Canada. In some smaller countries, such as Montenegro, Canadian investment is sizable enough to make up a major portion of the economy. In Northern Ireland, for example, Canada is the largest foreign investor. By becoming foreign owners themselves, Canadians have become far less politically concerned about investment within Canada.

Of note is that Canada’s largest companies by value, and largest employers, tend to be foreign-owned in a way that is more typical of a developing nation than a G8 member. The best example is the automotive sector, one of Canada’s most important industries. It is dominated by American, German, and Japanese giants. Although this situation is not unique to Canada in the global context, it is unique among G-8 nations, and many other relatively small nations also have national automotive companies.

It’s interesting to note that sometimes Canadian companies are the big investors but that doesn’t change our basic position. And, as I’ve noted in other postings (including the March 24, 2017 posting), these government investments in science and technology won’t necessarily lead to a move away from our ‘branch plant economy’ towards an innovative Canada.

You can find out more about the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence here.

BTW, I noted that reference to Hinton as ‘British-born’ in the BBC article. He was educated in the UK and subsidized by UK taxpayers (from his Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Hinton was educated at King’s College, Cambridge graduating in 1970, with a Bachelor of Arts in experimental psychology.[1] He continued his study at the University of Edinburgh where he was awarded a PhD in artificial intelligence in 1977 for research supervised by H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins.[3][12]

It seems Canadians are not the only ones to experience  ‘brain drains’.

Finally, I wrote at length about a recent initiative taking place between the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) and the University of Washington (Seattle, Washington), the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative in a Feb. 28, 2017 posting noting that the initiative is being funded by Microsoft to the tune $1M and is part of a larger cooperative effort between the province of British Columbia and the state of Washington. Artificial intelligence is not the only area where US technology companies are hedging their bets (against Trump’s administration which seems determined to terrify people from crossing US borders) by investing in Canada.

For anyone interested in a little more information about AI in the US and China, there’s today’s (March 31, 2017)earlier posting: China, US, and the race for artificial intelligence research domination.

University of Alberta scientists use ultra fast (terahertz) microscopy to see ultra small (electron dynamics)

This is exciting news for Canadian science and the second time there has been a breakthrough development from the province of Alberta within the last five months (see Sept. 21, 2016 posting on quantum teleportation). From a Feb. 21, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

For the first time ever, scientists have captured images of terahertz electron dynamics of a semiconductor surface on the atomic scale. The successful experiment indicates a bright future for the new and quickly growing sub-field called terahertz scanning tunneling microscopy (THz-STM), pioneered by the University of Alberta in Canada. THz-STM allows researchers to image electron behaviour at extremely fast timescales and explore how that behaviour changes between different atoms.

From a Feb. 21, 2017 University of Alberta news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“We can essentially zoom in to observe very fast processes with atomic precision and over super fast time scales,” says Vedran Jelic, PhD student at the University of Alberta and lead author on the new study. “THz-STM provides us with a new window into the nanoworld, allowing us to explore ultrafast processes on the atomic scale. We’re talking a picosecond, or a millionth millionth of a second. It’s something that’s never been done before.”

Jelic and his collaborators used their scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to capture images of silicon atoms by raster scanning a very sharp tip across the surface and recording the tip height as it follows the atomic corrugations of the surface. While the original STM can measure and manipulate single atoms–for which its creators earned a Nobel Prize in 1986–it does so using wired electronics and is ultimately limited in speed and thus time resolution.

Modern lasers produce very short light pulses that can measure a whole range of ultra-fast processes, but typically over length scales limited by the wavelength of light at hundreds of nanometers. Much effort has been expended to overcome the challenges of combining ultra-fast lasers with ultra-small microscopy. The University of Alberta scientists addressed these challenges by working in a unique terahertz frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum that allows wireless implementation. Normally the STM needs an applied voltage in order to operate, but Jelic and his collaborators are able to drive their microscope using pulses of light instead. These pulses occur over really fast timescales, which means the microscope is able to see really fast events.

By incorporating the THz-STM into an ultrahigh vacuum chamber, free from any external contamination or vibration, they are able to accurately position their tip and maintain a perfectly clean surface while imaging ultrafast dynamics of atoms on surfaces. Their next step is to collaborate with fellow material scientists and image a variety of new surfaces on the nanoscale that may one day revolutionize the speed and efficiency of current technology, ranging from solar cells to computer processing.

“Terahertz scanning tunneling microscopy is opening the door to an unexplored regime in physics,” concludes Jelic, who is studying in the Ultrafast Nanotools Lab with University of Alberta professor Frank Hegmann, a world expert in ultra-fast terahertz science and nanophysics.

Here’s are links to and citations for the team’s 2013 paper and their latest,

An ultrafast terahertz scanning tunnelling microscope by Tyler L. Cocker, Vedran Jelic, Manisha Gupta, Sean J. Molesky, Jacob A. J. Burgess, Glenda De Los Reyes, Lyubov V. Titova, Ying Y. Tsui, Mark R. Freeman, & Frank A. Hegmann. Nature Photonics 7, 620–625 (2013) doi:10.1038/nphoton.2013.151 Published online 07 July 2013

Ultrafast terahertz control of extreme tunnel currents through single atoms on a silicon surface by Vedran Jelic, Krzysztof Iwaszczuk, Peter H. Nguyen, Christopher Rathje, Graham J. Hornig, Haille M. Sharum, James R. Hoffman, Mark R. Freeman, & Frank A. Hegmann. Nature Physics (2017)  doi:10.1038/nphys4047 Published online 20 February 2017

Both papers are behind a paywall.

Switching of a single-atom channel

An Oct. 28, 2016 news item on phys.org announces a single-atom switch,

Robert Wolkow is no stranger to mastering the ultra-small and the ultra-fast. A pioneer in atomic-scale science with a Guinness World Record to boot (for a needle with a single atom at the point), Wolkow’s team, together with collaborators at the Max Plank Institute in Hamburg, have just released findings that detail how to create atomic switches for electricity, many times smaller than what is currently used.

What does it all mean? With applications for practical systems like silicon semi-conductor electronics, it means smaller, more efficient, more energy-conserving computers, as just one example of the technology revolution that is unfolding right before our very eyes (if you can squint that hard).

“This is the first time anyone’s seen a switching of a single-atom channel,” explains Wolkow, a physics professor at the University of Alberta and the Principal Research Officer at Canada’s National Institute for Nanotechnology. “You’ve heard of a transistor—a switch for electricity—well, our switches are almost a hundred times smaller than the smallest on the market today.”

An Oct. 28, 2016 University of Alberta news release by Jennifer Pascoe, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

Today’s tiniest transistors operate at the 14 nanometer level, which still represents thousands of atoms. Wolkow’s and his team at the University of Alberta, NINT, and his spinoff QSi, have worked the technology down to just a few atoms. Since computers are simply a composition of many on/off switches, the findings point the way not only to ultra-efficient general purpose computing but also to a new path to quantum computing.

Green technology for the digital economy

“We’re using this technology to make ultra-green, energy-conserving general purpose computers but also to further the development of quantum computers. We are building the most energy conserving electronics ever, consuming about a thousand times less power than today’s electronics.”

While the new tech is small, the potential societal, economic, and environmental impact of Wolkow’s discovery is very large. Today, our electronics consume several percent of the world’s electricity.  As the size of the energy footprint of the digital economy increases, material and energy conservation is becoming increasingly important.

Wolkow says there are surprising benefits to being smaller, both for normal computers, and, for quantum computers too. “Quantum systems are characterized by their delicate hold on information. They’re ever so easily perturbed. Interestingly though, the smaller the system gets, the fewer upsets.” Therefore, Wolkow explains, you can create a system that is simultaneously amazingly small, using less material and churning through less energy, while holding onto information just right.

Smaller systems equal smaller environmental footprint

When the new technology is fully developed, it will lead to not only a smaller energy footprint but also more affordable systems for consumers. “It’s kind of amazing when everything comes together,” says Wolkow.

Wolkow is one of the few people in the world talking about atom-scale manufacturing and believes we are witnessing the beginning of the revolution to come. He and his team have been working with large-scale industry leader Lockheed Martin as the entry point to the market.

“It’s something you don’t even hear about yet, but atom-scale manufacturing is going to be world-changing. People think it’s not quite doable but, but we’re already making things out of atoms routinely. We aren’t doing it just because. We are doing it because the things we can make have ever more desirable properties. They’re not just smaller. They’re different and better. This is just the beginning of what will be at least a century of developments in atom-scale manufacturing, and it will be transformational.”

Bill Mah in a Nov. 1, 2016 article for the Edmonton Journal delves a little further into issues around making transistors smaller and the implications of a single-atom switch,

Current computers use transistors, which are essentially valves for flowing streams of electrons around a circuit. In recent years, engineers have found ways to make these devices smaller, but pushing electrons through narrow spaces raises the danger of the machines overheating and failing.

“The transistors get too hot so you have to run them slower and more gently, so we’re getting more power in modern computers because there are more transistors, but we can’t run them very quickly because they make a lot of heat and they actually just shut down and fail.”

The smallest transistors are currently about 14 nanometres. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre and contains groupings of 1,000 or more atoms. The switches detailed by Wolkow and his colleagues will shrink them down to just a few atoms.

Potential benefits from the advance could lead to much more energy-efficient and smaller computers, an increasingly important consideration as the power consumption of digital devices keeps growing.

“The world is using about three per cent of our energy today on digital communications and computers,” Wolkow said. “Various reports I’ve seen say that it could easily go up to 10 or 15 per cent in a couple of decades, so it’s crucial that we get that under control.”

Wolkow’s team has received funding from companies such as Lockheed Martin and local investors.

The advances could also open a path to quantum computing. “It turns out these same building blocks … enable a quantum computer, so we’re kind of feverishly working on that at the same time.”

There is an animation illustrating a single-atom switch,

This animation represents an electrical current being switched on and off. Remarkably, the current is confined to a channel that is just one atom wide. Also, the switch is made of just one atom. When the atom in the centre feels an electric field tugging at it, it loses its electron. Once that electron is lost, the many electrons in the body of the silicon (to the left) have a clear passage to flow through. When the electric field is removed, an electron gets trapped in the central atom, switching the current off.  Courtesy: University of Alberta

Here’s a link to and a citation for the research paper,

Time-resolved single dopant charge dynamics in silicon by Mohammad Rashidi, Jacob A. J. Burgess, Marco Taucer, Roshan Achal, Jason L. Pitters, Sebastian Loth, & Robert A. Wolkow. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 13258 (2016)  doi:10.1038/ncomms13258 Published online: 26 October 2016

This paper is open access.

Nanotechnology at the University of McGill (Montréal, Canada) and other Canadian universities

On the occasion of the McGill University’s new minor program in nanotechnology, I decided to find other Canadian university nanotechnology programs.

First, here’s more about the McGill program from an Oct. 25, 2016 article by Miguel Principe for The McGill Tribune (Note: Links have been removed),

McGill’s Faculty of Engineering launched a new minor program this year that explores into the world of nanotechnology. It’s a relatively young field that focuses on nanomaterials—materials that have one dimension measuring 100 nanometres or less. …

“Nanomaterials are going to be very prominent in our everyday lives,” Assistant Professor Nathalie Tufenkji, of McGill’s Department of Chemical Engineering, said.  “We’re incorporating these materials into our everyday consumer products […] we’re putting these materials on our skin, […] in our paints, and electronics that we are contacting everyday.”

The new engineering minor program aims to introduce undergraduates to techniques in nanomaterial characterization and detection, as well as nanomaterial synthesis and processing. These concepts will be covered in courses such as Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Supramolecular Chemistry, and Design and Manufacture of Microdevices.

Tufenkji, along with Professor Peter Grutter in the Department of Physics were instrumental in organizing this program. The minor is interdepartmental and includes courses in physics and engineering.

“Of course there’s a flipside on how do we best develop nanotechnology to […] take advantage of its promise,” Tufenkji said. “One of the questions […] is what are the potential impacts on our health and environment of nanomaterials?”

Tufenkji believes it is important that Canada has scientists and engineers that are educated in emerging scientific concepts and cutting-edge technology. Giving undergraduate students exposure to nanotechnology research early in their studies is a good stepping stone for further investigation into the evolving field.

The most comprehensive list of nanotechnology degree programs in Canada (16 programs) is at Nanowerk (Note: Links have been removed and you may find some repetition),

Carleton University – BSc Chemistry with a concentration in Nanotechnology
This concentration allows students to study atoms and molecules used to create computer chips and other devices that are the size of a few nanometres – thousands of times smaller than current technology permits. Such discoveries will be useful in a number of fields, including aerospace, medicine, and electronics.

Carleton University – BSc Nanoscience
At Carleton, you will examine nanoscience through the disciplines of physical chemistry and electrical engineering to understand the physical, chemical and electronic characteristics of matter in this size regime. The combination of these two areas of study will equip you to fully understand nanoscience in photonic, electronic, energy and communication technologies. The focus of the program will be on materials – their use in electronic devices, their scalability and control of their properties.

McGill University – Bachelor of Engineering, Minor Nanotechnology
Through courses already offered in the Faculties of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, depending on the courses completed, undergraduate students will acquire knowledge in areas related to nanotechnology.

Northern Alberta Institute of Technology – Nanotechnology Systems Diploma Program
The two year program will provide graduates with the skills to operate systems and equipment associated with Canada’s emerging nanotechnology industry and lead to a Diploma in Nanotechnology Systems.

University of Alberta – BSc Computer Engineering with Nanoscale System Design Option
This options provides an introduction to the processes involved in the fabrication of nanoscale integrated circuits and to the computer aided design (CAD) tools necessary for the engineering of large scale system on a chip. By selecting this option, students will learn about fault tolerance in nanoscale systems and gain an understanding of quantum phenomena in systems design.

University of Alberta – BSc Electrical Engineering with Nanoengineering Option
This option provides an introduction to the principles of electronics, electromagnetics and photonics as they apply at the nanoscale level. By selecting this option, students will learn about the process involved in the fabrication of nanoscale structures and become familiar with the computer aided design (CAD) tools necessary for analyzing phenomena at these very high levels of miniaturization.

University of Alberta – BSc Engineering Physics with Nanoengineering Option
The Nanoengineering Option provides broad skills suitable for entry to the nanotechnology professions, combining core Electrical Engineering and Physics courses with additional instruction in biochemistry and chemistry, and specialized instruction in nanoelectronics, nanobioengineering, and nanofabrication.

University of Alberta – BSc Materials Engineering with Nano and Functional Materials Option
Students entering this option will be exposed to the exciting and emerging field of nano and functional materials. Subject areas covered include electronic, optical and magnetic materials, nanomaterials and their applications, nanostructured molecular sieves, nano and functional materials processing and fabrication. Employment opportunities exist in several sectors of Canadian industry, such as microelectronic/optoelectronic device fabrication, MEMS processing and fuel cell development.

University of Calgary – B.Sc. Concentration in Nanoscience
Starting Fall 2008/Winter 2009, students can enroll in the only process learning driven Nanoscience program in North America. Courses offered are a B.Sc. Minor in Nanoscience and a B.Sc. Concentration in Nanoscience.

University of Calgary – B.Sc. Minor in Nanoscience
Starting Fall 2008/Winter 2009, students can enroll in the only process learning driven Nanoscience program in North America. Courses offered are a B.Sc. Minor in Nanoscience and a B.Sc. Concentration in Nanoscience.

University of Guelph – Nanoscience B.Sc. Program
At Guelph we have created a unique approach to nanoscience studies. Fundamental science course are combined with specially designed courses in nanoscience covering material that would previously only be found in graduate programs.

University of Toronto – BASc in Engineering Science (Nanoengineering Option)
This option transcends the traditional boundaries between physics, chemistry, and biology. Starting with a foundation in materials engineering and augmented by research from the leading-edge of nanoengineering, students receive an education that is at the forefront of this constantly evolving area.

University of Waterloo – Bachelor of Applied Science Nanotechnology Engineering
The Nanotechnology Engineering honours degree program is designed to provide a practical education in key areas of nanotechnology, including the fundamental chemistry, physics, and engineering of nanostructures or nanosystems, as well as the theories and techniques used to model, design, fabricate, or characterize them. Great emphasis is placed on training with modern instrumentation techniques as used in the research and development of these emerging technologies.

University of Waterloo – Master of Applied Science Nanotechnology
The interdisciplinary research programs, jointly offered by three departments in the Faculty of Science and four in the Faculty of Engineering, provide students with a stimulating educational environment that spans from basic research through to application. The goal of the collaborative programs is to allow students to gain perspectives on nanotechnology from a wide community of scholars within and outside their disciplines in both course and thesis work. The MASc and MSc degree collaborative programs provide a strong foundation in the emerging areas of nano-science or nano-engineering in preparation for the workforce or for further graduate study and research leading to a doctoral degree.

University of Waterloo – Master of Science Nanotechnology
The interdisciplinary research programs, jointly offered by three departments in the Faculty of Science and four in the Faculty of Engineering, provide students with a stimulating educational environment that spans from basic research through to application. The goal of the collaborative programs is to allow students to gain perspectives on nanotechnology from a wide community of scholars within and outside their disciplines in both course and thesis work. The MASc and MSc degree collaborative programs provide a strong foundation in the emerging areas of nano-science or nano-engineering in preparation for the workforce or for further graduate study and research leading to a doctoral degree.

University of Waterloo – Ph.D. Program in Nanotechnology
The objective of the PhD program is to prepare students for careers in academia, industrial R&D and government research labs. Students from Science and Engineering will work side-by-side in world class laboratory facilities namely, the Giga-to-Nano Electronics Lab (G2N), Waterloo Advanced Technology Lab (WatLAB) and the new 225,000 gross sq. ft. Quantum-Nano Center expected to be completed in early 2011.

The Wikipedia entry for Nanotechnology education lists a few Canadian university programs that seem to have been missed, as well as a few previously seen in the Nanowerk list (Note: Links have been removed),

  • University of Alberta – B.Sc in Engineering Physics with Nanoengineering option
  • University of Toronto – B.A.Sc in Engineering Science with Nanoengineering option
  • University of Waterloo – B.A.Sc in Nanotechnology Engineering
    • Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology -B.Sc, B.A.Sc, master’s, Ph.D, Post Doctorate
  • McMaster University – B.Sc in Engineering Physics with Nanotechnology option
  • University of British Columbia – B.A.Sc in Electrical Engineering with Nanotechnology & Microsystems option
  • Carleton University – B.Sc in Chemistry with Concentration in Nanotechnology
  • University of Calgary – B.Sc Minor in Nanoscience, B.Sc Concentration in Nanoscience
  • University of Guelph – B.Sc in Nanoscience

So, there you have it.

Bob McDonald: How is Canada on the ‘forefront of pushing nanotechnology forward’?

Mr. Quirks & Quarks, also known as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Bob McDonald, host of the science radio programme Quirks & Quarks, published an Oct. 9, 2016 posting on the programme’s CBC blog about the recently awarded 2016 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and Canada’s efforts in the field of nanotechnology (Links have been removed),

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded this week for developments in nanotechnology heralds a new era in science, akin to the discovery of electromagnetic induction 185 years ago. And like electricity, nanotechnology could influence the world in dramatic ways, not even imaginable today.

The world’s tiniest machines

The Nobel Laureates developed molecular machines, which are incredibly tiny devices assembled one molecule at a time, including a working motor, a lifting machine, a micro-muscle, and even a four wheel drive vehicle, all of which can only be seen with the most powerful electron microscopes. While these lab experiments are novel curiosities, the implications are huge, and Canada is on the forefront of pushing this research forward. [emphasis mine]

McDonald never explains how Canadians are pushing nanotechnology research further but there is this (Note: Links have been removed),

Many universities offer degree programs on the subject while organizations such as the National Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Alberta, and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, are conducting fundamental research on these new novel materials.

Somehow he never mentions any boundary-pushing research. hmmm

To be blunt, it’s very hard to establish Canada’s position in the field since ‘nanotechnolgy research’ as such doesn’t exist here in the way it does in the United States, Korea, Iran, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria, and others. It’s not a federally coordinated effort in Canada despite the fact that we have a Canada National Research Council (NRC) National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in Alberta. (There’s very little information about research on the NINT website.) A Government of Canada NanoPortal is poorly maintained and includes information that is seriously out-of-date. One area where Canadians have been influential has been at the international level where we’ve collaborated on a number of OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development) projects focused on safety (occupational and environmental, in particular) issues.

Canada’s Ingenuity Lab, a nanotechnology project that appeared promising, hasn’t made many research announcements and seems to be a provincial (Alberta) initiative rather than a federal one. In fact, the most activity in the field of nanotechnology research has been at the provincial level with Alberta and Québec in the lead, if financial investment is your primary measure, and Ontario following, then the other provinces trailing from behind. Unfortunately, I’ve never come across any nanotechnology research from the Yukon or other parts North.

With regard to research announcements, the situation changes and you have Québec and Ontario assuming the lead positions with Alberta following. As McDonald noted, the University of Waterloo has a major nanotechnology education programme and the University of Toronto seems to have a very active research focus in that field (Ted Sargent and solar cells and quantum dots) and the University of Guelph is known for its work in agriculture and nanotechnolgy (search this blog using any of the three universities as a search term). In Québec, they’ve made a number of announcements about cutting edge research. You can search this blog for the names Sylvain Martel, Federico Rosei, and Claude Ostiguy (who seems to work primarily in French), amongst others. CelluForce, based in Quebec, and once  a leader (not sure about the situation these days) in the production of cellulose nanocrystals (CNC). One side comment, CNC was first developed at the University of British Columbia, however, Québec showed more support (provincial funding) and interest and the bulk of that research effort moved.

There’s one more shout out and that’s for Blue Goose Biorefineries in the province of Saskatchewan, which sells CNC and offers services to help companies  research applications for the material.

One other significant area of interest comes to mind, the graphite mines in Québec and Ontario which supply graphite flakes used to produce graphene, a material that is supposed to revolutionize electronics, in particular.

There are other research efforts and laboratories in Canada but these are the institutions and researchers with which I’m most familiar after more than eight years of blogging about Canadian nanotechnology. That said, if I’ve missed any significant, please do let me know in the comments section of this blog.

First Canadian Governor-General’s innovation award goes to professor Robert Burrell (nanoscientist) at the University of Alberta

The first innovation award ever given by the Canadian Governor General* has gone to a nanomedicine pioneer at the University of Alberta. From a May 12, 2016 news article by Marc Montgomery for Radio Canada International*, Note: A link has been removed,

Professor Robert Burrell of the University of Alberta has won a prestigious Governor-General’s Innovation Award for the world’s first therapeutic use of nanotechnology.

Professor Burrell used nano-technology on a wound bandage that has already begun transforming treatment of wounds in situations around the world.

Robert Burrell,  Professor in the Faculty of Chemical and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta, is also Canada Research Chair in Nanostructured Biomaterials, and Chair, Biomedical Engineering at the university.

Burrell’s development called Acticoat came from research into nano-forms of silver.  When silver is reduced to nano scale it’s properties and chemical activity change.

In his research prior to joining the University in 2002, Burrell created a coating of nano-crystals of silver which not only kills bacteria but also has anti-inflammatory properties.

A May 9, 2016 University of Alberta news release has a bit more information,

… The chair of the U of A Department of Biomedical Engineering has been awarded a new national innovation prize in recognition of an invention that transformed wound care around the world.

Rob Burrell PhD, FCAHS, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Nanostructure Biomaterials and leads the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is one of six Canadians to win the inaugural round of the Governor General’s Innovation Awards. The awards recognize “exceptional and transformative work” that has helped “shape our future and positively impact our quality of life.”

“It was a nice surprise,” Burrell says of receiving the award. “I got an email in April—and was wondering why the Secretary to the Governor General of Canada [David Johnston is the current Governor General] wanted to talk to me. When we had our phone call he congratulated me on winning the award.”

Burrell invented Acticoat, a new wound dressing that uses nanocrystalline silver to fight bacteria and inflammation in wounds, while working for Westaim Biomedical, later Nucryst Pharmaceuticals. He joined the Faculty of Engineering in 2002.

The dressing was the world’s first therapeutic use of nanotechnology and has saved thousands of lives and limbs, transforming the treatment of burns and wounds.

“We have three projects on the go now. We’ve developed a new dressing and applied for a patent on it for scar control and we’re looking at commercializing that,” he said. “I have two of my grad students—and this summer we will have three summer students—working on a diagnostic tool that will allow a surgeon in an operating room to assess a tumour in 10 to 15 minutes. The analysis of the tumour can determine the type of surgery and post-surgical care the patient receives.”

You can find out more about the Governor General awards, which include, in addition to the new innovation category, the arts,  the sciences and humanities, and more here.

* I have a couple of explanatory notes for those unfamiliar with the concept of a Governor General and/or those who may be curious about Radio Canada International.

The Governor General is the Queen’s or the British monarch’s representative in Canada. Here’s another more general definition from a Wikipedia entry,

Governor-general or governor general, in modern usage, is the title of an office-holder appointed to represent the monarch of a sovereign state in the governing of an independent realm. Governors-general have also previously been appointed in respect of major colonial states or other territories held by either a monarchy or republic, such as French Indochina.

Radio Canada International is a little complicated. Radio Canada is the French language arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the name ‘Radio Canada’ refers to its radio, television, and internet services.

Interestingly Radio Canada International is the global outreach for both Radio Canada and CBC, presumably, uniting the English and French language services under one banner.

University of Alberta team may open door to flexible electronics with engineering breakthrough

There’s some exciting news from the University of Alberta. It emerges from a team that has reconsidered transistor architecture, from a Feb. 9, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

An engineering research team at the University of Alberta has invented a new transistor that could revolutionize thin-film electronic devices.

The team was exploring new uses for thin film transistors (TFT), which are most commonly found in low-power, low-frequency devices like the display screen you’re reading from now. Efforts by researchers and the consumer electronics industry to improve the performance of the transistors have been slowed by the challenges of developing new materials or slowly improving existing ones for use in traditional thin film transistor architecture, known technically as the metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor (MOSFET).

But the U of A electrical engineering team did a run-around on the problem. Instead of developing new materials, the researchers improved performance by designing a new transistor architecture that takes advantage of a bipolar action. In other words, instead of using one type of charge carrier, as most thin film transistors do, it uses electrons and the absence of electrons (referred to as “holes”) to contribute to electrical output. Their first breakthrough was forming an ‘inversion’ hole layer in a ‘wide-bandgap’ semiconductor, which has been a great challenge in the solid-state electronics field.

A Feb. 9, 2016 University of Alberta news release by Richard Cairney and Grecia Pacheco (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

Once this was achieved, “we were able to construct a unique combination of semiconductor and insulating layers that allowed us to inject “holes” at the MOS interface,” said Gem Shoute, a PhD student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who is lead author on the article. Adding holes at the interface increased the chances of an electron “tunneling” across a dielectric barrier. Through this phenomenon, a type of quantum tunnelling, “we were finally able to achieve a transistor that behaves like a bipolar transistor.”

“It’s actually the best performing [TFT] device of its kind–ever,” said materials engineering professor Ken Cadien, a co-author on the paper. “This kind of device is normally limited by the non-crystalline nature of the material that they are made of”

The dimension of the device itself can be scaled with ease in order to improve performance and keep up with the need of miniaturization, an advantage that modern TFTs lack. The transistor has power-handling capabilities at least 10 times greater than commercially produced thin film transistors.

Electrical engineering professor Doug Barlage, who is Shoute’s PhD supervisor and one of the paper’s lead authors, says his group was determined to try new approaches and break new ground. He says the team knew it could produce a high-power thin film transistor–it was just a matter of finding out how.

“Our goal was to make a thin film transistor with the highest power handling and switching speed possible. Not many people want to look into that, but the raw properties of the film indicated dramatic performance increase was within reach,” he said. “The high quality sub 30 nanometre (a human hair is 50,000 nanometres wide) layers of materials produced by Professor Cadien’s group enabled us to successfully try these difficult concepts”

In the end, the team took advantage of the very phenomena other researchers considered roadblocks.

“Usually tunnelling current is considered a bad thing in MOSFETs and it contributes to unnecessary loss of power, which manifests as heat,” explained Shoute. “What we’ve done is build a transistor that considers tunnelling current a benefit.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Sustained hole inversion layer in a wide-bandgap metal-oxide semiconductor with enhanced tunnel current by Gem Shoute, Amir Afshar, Triratna Muneshwar, Kenneth Cadien, & Douglas Barlage. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 10632 doi:10.1038/ncomms10632 Published 04 February 2016

This is an open access paper.

ETA Feb. 12, 2016: Dexter Johnson has written up the research in a Feb. 11, 2016 posting (on this Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) where he offers enthusiam (rare) and additional explanation.