by Viktor BYKOV, Dr. Sc. (Technology), President of the NT-MPT Company Ltd. (Moscow)
Three years seems to be too little time for any major changes in a small enterprise. In our magazine (Science in Russia , No. 4, 2000) we carried a story on the NT-MDT Company Ltd. And yet it has seen many changes-in its performance and in the conceptual framework of its development above all.
When, in 1991, we founded our company for the manufacture of scanning microscopes and fixings, our sole motive was to make devices notches above the best foreign analogs in their technical characteristics. It looked like a fantastic project: to enter the world market and conquer it step by step through marketing skills and reasonable pricing policies. This is what is happening now, which means we are on the right track.
But we have encountered many pitfalls in our way. To get what's it all about, let's look 50 years back and review the record scanning microscopes.
Way back in 1959 the American physicist Richard P. Feynman (Nobel Prize, 1965) said many materials
and devices would soon be minituarized to the atomic or molecular scale, something opening up fascinating prospects indeed. But to deal with so minute objects on the nanometer scale (nanometer being a billionth part of a meter), an essentially novel of measuring instruments and devices is needed, quite different from orthodox ones. Such technology entered the stage only in the 1980s, and those were the scanning cantilever (probe) microscopes. It was then that one started speaking of the nanoscience as a discipline in its own right - so much comprehensive, all-embracing and significant that it might become a trend-setter of the 21st-century progress at large.
The last few decades are proof positive of that. Today high technologies - nanotechnologies in particular - are evolving into a major factor of a country's political and economic prestige, while the mining and processing industries are losing some of their significance. As to the nanotechnologies, they can be applied in virtually any sphere of human activity - say, in metallurgy and biotechnology, transportation and medical diagnostics, space and ecology, machine engineering and polymer production, and in a wide range of military-related hardware.
As a matter of fact, the priority in the discovery and use of substances persisting in an ultradisperse state (or, in modern terminology, in a nanostate) belongs to Soviet and Russian scientists (Isaac Kikoin, member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, and other researchers) who, back in the 1950s, took up such studies, even though the first publication on nanostructures was off but in 1976. In view of the great significance of this field, the USSR Academy of Sciences, in 1979, set up a specialized body to research into ultradisperse systems, nanomaterials and nanotechnologies. This involved basic and applied research at colleges, universities and research centers, including those operating under the umbrella of the Academy of Sciences.
New prospects were opened up in 1985 as US scientists discovered stable nanostructures - fullerenes * and nanotubes (Sumio Iijima of Japan, 1991). Russia's scientific community and official quarters responded quickly to these innovations: in 1993 the RF Ministry for Science and Technologies endorsed a federal goal-oriented program of fullerenes and atomic clusters that took in the entire range of research into new materials, including basic research and possible ways of their production and application. Because of the specialist terminology, we shall not go into the first part of this program, but would rather acquaint you with its third, concluding part.
Nano- and optoelectronics are the main consumers of nanomaterials. Electrical, optical and mechanical characteristics of fullerene and related materials in a condensed state and of nanotubes allow to expand significantly the possibilities of structural elements and instruments along with their considerable minituarization. Thus, transistor prototypes made of nanotubes have been manufactured.
Russia's scientists are attacking many problems in this area. Let me name some of the most important fields of our work: vacuum micro-
* See: "Fullerenes", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2000. - Ed .
electronics instruments on the basis of autoelectronic emitters - the nanotubes of high radiation resistance; integrated devices of signals processing based on carbon nanostructures; technologies of controlled assembly or targeted formation of nanotubes for the making of highly integrated units of data processing. By the way, such "macro" branches as transportation, engineering and the building industry are in need of nanomaterials today. They are developing apace and could not make do with conventional materials and technologies. Now, what is the practical use of ultradisperse elements? Here are a few examples.
Fullerene additives to lubricants (whether liquid or solid additives-in the form of graphite or molybdenum sulfide) reduce significantly friction in the units of various mechanisms and machines. And multipurpose diamond-and-graphite additives to motor oil improve the friction- and wear-resistant properties and actually bring to nought the possibility of metal scorings. Thereby fuel consumption is down by 2 to 7 percent, the wear of parts is about half as much, while the power of an internal combustion engine is up by 2 to 4 percent.
Our next example deals with the structure of materials. As shown by tests, an ultradisperse structured material is 1.5, 2 and even 3 fold as durable as the orthodox ones. More than that, it is 50 - 70 fold superior in strength and 10 - 12 fold in corrosion resistance.
Here are some of the priority products developed by Russia's experts (All-Russia Research Institute of Aviation Materials, and other research centers): composites obtained on the basis of polymers, metals and alloys, and modified by fullerenes and nanotubes to improve the wear resistance, strength and crack resistance of elements employed in machine engineering, and to enhance the reliability of current collectors in electricity-driven transport; lubricating and cooling composites supplemented with ultradisperse and nanomaterials for enhancing the friction resistance of transportation systems; and new building materials obtained with the use of nanostructurization techniques. We might as well mention other application domains - ecology, medicine, power, biotechnology, nuclear industry, space, defense, and so on - where the use of ultradisperse materials and nanoparticles, be it in the "pure" form or as additives, works miracles.
In a nutshell, basic science is making major strides in the study and hands-on application of nanotechnologies and related materials. We are in for yet another technological revolution which cannot be brought about without purposeful government support and policy.
In April 2002 the RF President signed a document outlining the guidelines of the Russian Federation's policy in promoting the further development of science and technologies in a period of up until the year 2010 and afterwards. This document covers materials for micro- and nanoelectronics; high-precision technologies of processing, assembly and control; microsystems and related technologies;
synthetic superhard materials; elemental base of microelectronics and quantum computers; basic military and specialist civilian technologies. From the part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, this work is being coordinated by Academicians Zhores Alferov (Nobel Prize, 2000), Yuri Osipyan, Alexander Andreyev, Nikolai Liakishev, Mikhail Alfimov, Vladimir Tartakovsky, and Nikolai Kuznetsov. Several federal ministries are tackling the largest and most significant projects.
To cope with the above targets, we need most up-to-date and high-performance technology for identifying all the various characteristics of nanomaterials and for accessing nanotechnology to research scientists. That is why in December 2002 the RF Ministry for Industry, Science and Technologies arranged an open competition of innovative nanoprojects. One such important project involved nanoinstruments and equipment. The aim was to equip R&D bodies and manufacturers with a basic kit of instruments and hardware essential for scanning probe microscopy. Our company won this competition. But why this outfit after all?
In terms of their measuring and "creative" possibilities (lithography, reversal of magnetization, sputtering, etching, etc.), certain setups are just meant for nanotechnologies. The chief characteristic - superhigh spatial resolution, down to the atomic scale - argues in favor of this approach.
More than that, these unique things can work in any medium: in the air, in the rarified atmosphere and even in vacuum; in gaseous and liquid media; and at low and high temperatures. And since all probe-surface interactions known today (force, electric current, chemical, optical interactions, etc.) obey the same principles, as good as all nanostructures can be studied by means of scanning probe (cantilever) microscopy.
Up until recently, however, we manufactured only separate instruments in huge numbers, which had no advantage economically. There was but one way out, and that was the universalization of our technical base. It became our motto. The earlier scanning cantilever microscopes in the SMENA and SOLVER series (enabling to get as many as 43 characteristics of substances under study) became a base for our further work in developing universal and, what is most important, interrelated products.
The NT-MDT Co. is the world's only firm that has hit upon a road like that. Our megaproject comprises four component parts of one multifunctional "organism" of instruments, namely those used in investigating surfaces and in modifying their nanostructures in liquid and gaseous media; those used in studying nanostructures in rare gas media of controlled composition; a complex integrating scanning probe microscopy and laser spectroscopy methods; and a basic nanotechnological complex for optimizing the techniques of synthesizing polymer and biological objects. All these basic components of our megaproject rely on a specialized information and computer medium with databases on different applications of nanotechnologies.
And yet it proved to be a deadend road in the long run. Why?
Because identifying and studying new characteristics of nanosubstances is not an end in itself. Following in the footsteps of research scientists are designers and product engineers. Their job is to put innovative ideas into practice and develop new materials, new original technologies and even industries. Such has been the pathway of world progress, though it has been proceeding at different pace now and again, by fits and starts.
Our computing complexes are among the galaxy of science-intensive instruments. Creating them, we take into account the laws of quantum mechanics and solid-state physics, the theories of oscillations and automatic control systems, together with methods of signals and images processing, and the latest in computer technology. Yet one, even the most up-to-date complex, has limited "intelligence" that depends heavily on specialized software, expert systems and databases. This results in a significant increase of research time and of costs; and worst of all, duplication of one and the same work is unavoidable.
We have found a way out - INTERNET. Suppose several computing centers equipped with the best supercomputers are hooked in. These can process data from the many research nanocomplexes, and do it at fantastic rates; using the global database, we can give out a result in a customized form, i.e. accessible to individual users.
The gains are obvious. First, duplication of research works is ruled out. Second, we achieve a dramatic cut in the costs and time for local software and databases. The servicing personnel will not have to spread themselves thin on so many different packets and databases.
Although this very path will take quite some time, it seems to us inevitable and the only correct one. First we will have to set up local networks to link devices of the same type; next, we will integrate them step by step on a selective basis, and then come to a wholly integrated system open to every user. The initial stage in the development of this network is best suited for basic and applied problem solving. Subsequently, it could be extended to industries where all processes are computerized. Experts say it will take 15 to 20 years to realize this project in full. But some of the components of the system, say, its local nets on nanoelectronics or polymers may be onstream in 3, 4 or 5 years.
No doubt, our plans are quite realistic. If implemented, they will boost Russia's nanotechnological potential immensely.
Interviewer, Arkady MALTSEV
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