Main research area: Nanoscience


Tiny worlds

An UV-laser illuminates silicon nanoparticles (centre).

There are currently 45 teams working in nanoscience and nanotechnology in Collaborative Research Centres, Research Training Groups, Excellence Clusters and university-industry cooperation. Their expertise extends from nanoparticle fabrication and characterisation, magnetic hete­rolayer systems and surface research to theoretical physics. The university is therefore able to make a significant contribution to both basic and applied research in this field.

The UDE was able to establish itself as a global player early on thanks to its strategic appointments policy. The Center for Nanointegration Duisburg-Essen, or CeNIDE for short, brings together the various research groups, whose interests range from experimental and theoretical investigation of basic principles through process engineering to technical applications in partnership with industry.

They are united by a shared concern for tiny structures; the prefix nano is derived from the Greek word for dwarf and stands for a thousand-millionth. Dimensions on the nanometre scale involve millionths of a millimetre - the domain of atoms. Nanoparticles are generally only a few hundred atoms in diameter and therefore exhibit different physical, chemical and biological properties from conventional materials. The occurring interfacial effects and quantum phenomena can be used in electrical, magnetic or optical components with entirely novel or customised properties.

Several branches of science come together in this context. Nanoparticles, for example, are customised - and in some cases fabricated in large volumes - by engineers and chemists; they are then characterised using physical methods and investigated in search of new and often surprising properties. The findings have applications in material science, surface treatment and increasingly also in medicine, where nanotechnology will one day make it possible to administer medication directly to where it is needed with highly effective results.
One of the main aims, apart from synergy effects in the research, is to produce results that can be put to practical use in industry. To date there has been very little large-scale industrial application of nanotechnologies because the relevant companies, for example in energy technology, do not have sufficient quantities of specific nanomaterials to develop further process stages. The new NanoEnergieTechnikZentrum (NETZ) sets out to close this gap by developing customised functional materials for energy technology applications. Its initial focus is on fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries, catalysis in energy technology, photovoltaics, and thermoelectrics. As from 2012, when the new lab building is scheduled for completion, researchers will be able to work together in a shared research facility.

How do you create a tool that can produce things a thousand times smaller than the tiniest component in a wristwatch? Ions, or charged atoms, are the answer. If they are accelerated and concentrated by electrical and magnetic fields, they can be sprayed onto a surface in a jet with nanometric precision and remove material in a similar way to sandblasting. The Focused Ion Beam (FIB) system to do this has already been assembled in the Physics cleanrooms and is now in operation as a "nano workbench".

A further example of the excellent technical facilities available to this research cluster is the "nanoprobe" analyser, which combines four scanning tunnelling microscopes. They simultaneously operate on the same surface and use their ultra­precise tips to spatially resolve and manipulate single atoms and molecules. There are so far just a handful of these instruments in the world today. The extremely precise, very close positioning of the four tips makes it possible to analyse the current through nanostructures on an atomic scale.

The UDE continues to follow a consistent strategy in training junior scientists. Nanotronics - Optoelectronics and Photovoltaics from Nanoparticles is a Research Training Group focussing on the main themes of converting electrical en-ergy into light and converting light into electrical energy. Examples of the university's exemplary work include its close cooperation with industry to provide structured postgraduate training, and the innovative combination of theory, synthesis, characterisation, analysis, and device development. The traditional boundaries between physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering are also crossed in the Nano­Engineering study programme, which deals with and explains the specific properties of nanomaterials. The focus of this programme, the only one of its kind in Germany, is on nano-process engineering and nano-optoelectronics.

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