Sizing Up the EU’s Nanotechnology Infrastructure

Numerous countries are funding national nanotechnology efforts in order to develop the R&D and infrastructure capabilities to support private and public opportunities in nanotech technologies and products in fields ranging from medicine, to semiconductors, to chemicals. At stake is industrial and scientific leadership in a new field whose potential impact has been compared to biotechnology and semiconductors. According to BusinessWeek, governments worldwide have invested approximately $24 billion into nanotech R&D.

Europe is among the regions making nanotech an R&D priority. However, some observers, and even the EU itself in a recent European Commission report on innovation, note that efforts to commercialize nanotech have been less successful in the EU than other regions. A representative of consulting firm Cientifica told BusinessWeek that European companies have concentrated on basic research, while US firms have focused more on the immediate commercial possibilities. Specific problems for nanotech firms in Europe are the divide between academia and corporate R&D, a lack of industrial investment compared to the US and Japan and a weaker entrepreneurial culture. Analysts do point to future potential in a move within nanotech from materials to applications, particularly in health care and pharmaceuticals, fields in which Europe has been traditionally strong.

A recent report from Nanoforum, an EU-sponsored consortium designed to enhance communication and knowledge about EU nanotech, provides an overview of R&D resources and projects in 26 EU nations and four associated countries (Israel, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey). Specifically, the report details the countries’ infrastructure facilities, defined as centers providing external researchers with access to fabrication or analytical facilities and technical support. As the report shows, Europe’s public resources for nanotech are numerous and include interdisciplinary labs, research networks and regional partnerships. Such resources provide a solid foundation for the EU to build its nanotech investments, although the available resources vary widely among countries.

The 30 countries covered by the report boast 303 nanotech and nanoscience infrastructure facilities. In addition to these facilities, Nanoforum designates 18 major facilities, defined as having large-scale facilities, support staff and multimillion dollar budgets. Additional resources include 142 networks to facilitate nanotech R&D collaborations among EU countries, including 58 that participate in international collaborations.

Germany is home to the largest nanotech infrastructure among EU nations. Its infrastructure consists of 61 facilities, three major facilities and 20 nanotech networks, according to Nanoforum. Germany’s nanotech activities are broad based, encompassing R&D in a variety of research areas, such as nanomaterials, photonics, energy and nanobiotechnology. The country’s major facilities include the CFN’s (German Research Foundation) Center for Functional Nanostructures, an interdisciplinary center, and the Fraunhofer Center for Nanoelectronic Technology, a joint project of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Infineo Technologies AG, Advanced Micro Devices, the German Ministry of Education and Research, and the Free State of Saxony. The Institute for New Materials is the country’s third major nanotech facility. The country also supports 12 Collaborative Research Centers for basic research.

The UK has the second-largest number of infrastructure facilities and networks in the EU after Germany. The UK’s 34 facilities and 11 networks represent particular expertise in nanomaterials, electronics, fabrication and analysis, according to Nanoforum. However, Nanoforum classifies only two UK locations, both in Northern Ireland, as major nanotech facilities. The Center for Research in Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices, opened last year, features four floors of nanotech labs and has partnered with Hewlett-Packard and Intel. Established in 2004, the Tyndall National Institute, the UK’s other major facility, is focused on information and communications technology. It houses central fabrication and nanofabrication facilities.

France maintains six major nanotech facilities, the largest number among the countries surveyed by Nanoforum, as well as 23 facilities and four networks. According to Nanoforum, French nanotech and nanoscience R&D encompasses 2,000 researchers in 180 labs and an annual budget of approximately €180 million ($243.2 million). The country’s nanotech resources include its network of seven large clean-room facilities, five Centers of Compentency for regional projects and six “Centrales de proximité” technology platforms. The major facilities are Minatec (see IBO 9/15/06), as well as the CEA’s (Atomic Energy Commission) LETI (Electronics and Information Technologies Laboratory), the CNRS’s (National Center for Scientific Research) LPN (Laboratory for Photonics and Nanostructures) and LAAS (Analysis and Architecture of Systems Laboratory), the IEF (Institute of Fundamental Electronics) and the IEMN (Northern Electronic and Microelectronic Institute), all members of the clean-room network.

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