Nanoscience, small science, and big science

Quite apart from the obvious pun, it’s tempting to think of nanoscience as typical small science. Most of the big advances are made by small groups working in universities on research programs devised, not by vast committees, but by the individual professors who write the grant applications. Equipment is often quite cheap, by scientific standards – a state of the art atomic force microscope might cost $200,000, and doesn’t need a great deal of expensive infrastructure to house it. If you have the expertise and the manpower, but not the money, you could build one yourself for perhaps a tenth of this price or less. This is an attractive option for scientists in developing countries, and this is one reason why nanoscience has become such a popular field in countries like India and China. It’s all very different from the huge and expensive multinational collaborations that are necessary for progress in particle physics, where a single experiment may involve hundreds of scientists and hundreds of millions of dollars – the archetype of big science.

Big science does impact on the nanoworld, though. Techniques that use the highly intense beams of x-rays obtained from synchrotron sources like the ESRF at Grenoble, France, and the APS, on the outskirts of Chicago, USA, have been vital in determining the structure, at the atomic level, of the complex and efficient nanomachines of cell biology. Neutron beams, too, are unique probes of the structure and dynamics of nanoscale objects like macromolecules. To get a beam of neutrons intense enough for this kind of structure, you either need a research reactor, like the one at the Institut Laue-Langevin, in Grenoble (at which I am writing this), or a spallation source, such as ISIS, near Oxford in the UK. This latter consists of a high energy synchrotron, of the kind developed for particle physics, which smashes pulses of protons into a heavy metal target, producing showers of neutrons.

Synchrotron and neutron sources are run on a time-sharing basis; individual groups apply for time on a particular instrument, and the best applications are allocated a few days of (rather frenetic) experimentation. So in this sense, even these techniques have the character of small science. But the facilities themselves are expensive – the world’s most advanced spallation source for neutrons, the SNS currently being built in Oak Ridge, TN, USA, will cost more than $1.4 billion, and the Japanese source J-PARC, a few years behind SNS, has a budget of $1.8 billion. With this big money comes real politics. How do you set the priorities for the science that is going to be done, not next year, but in ten years time? Do you emphasise the incremental research that you are certain will produce results, or do you gamble on untested ideas that just might produce a spectacular pay-off? This is the sort of rather difficult and uncomfortable discussion I’ve been involved in for the last couple of days – I’m on the Scientific Council of ILL, which has just been having one of its twice yearly meetings.

7 thoughts on “Nanoscience, small science, and big science”

  1. US$200,000 is alot of money for an AFM. Quesant ( sells them for around UD$50,000 and Molecular Imaging sells AFMs that are designed for biological work for around US$70,000. There are many AFM makers (I saw about 8-10 of them) at the MRS Spring exhibition last week.

    We have a surface acoustic wave instrument that uses laser generated waves to measure mechanical properties of thin films (hardness, elasticity, density, and Poisson’s ratio) down to 50-100nm in thickness, making it better than nano-indentation. Our instrument (LASAW-NC) is more effective for analysis of soft materials (polymers, etc.) than nano-indentation. Have a look at for more details on the LASAW-NC and other instruments.

    Nano is the word at MRS.

  2. Kurt,

    Although you’re correct in that there are cheaper systems available, I agree with Richard’s estimate for state-of-the-art, ‘all singing, all dancing’ AFM systems which provide all modes of currently available operation (e.g. electric force microscopy, magnetic force microscopy, conducting tip AFM, closed-loop control, thermal calibration of cantilevers…etc…). (Indeed, the estimate is probably a little on the low side). I’d rather not use Richard’s site as an advertisement board for these companies, however! (Please e-mail me for further information if you like).

    In addition, note that for AFM operation in UHV, that $200K is well below the lowest price for commercially available systems.

    Best wishes,


  3. As Philip says, it all depends what you mean by state of the art. My most recent quote from Veeco for a Multimode with Nanoscope 4 controller and some handy add ons was 128,865 before tax. You could certainly pay more, but equally there are cheaper and less functional systems available too. In any case, my point is simply that you could buy a lot of AFMs for a billion dollars!

    I’ll give Kurt a break about advertising his company on my site, as long as he promises not to start advertising cheap prescription pharmaceuticals or on-line poker. Is your LASAW technique similar to the one by developed by Wolfgang Sachse at Cornell (Applied Physics Letters, 69 p1692 (1996))?

  4. Ahhh, it’s just struck me that a clarification is in order. I wasn’t criticising Kurt for posting the website address here, I simply meant that I’d rather not post the details of the SPM companies of which I was thinking. Kurt, apologies if my comment appeared rude – it wasn’t meant as a criticism! Your company supplies some interesting instruments.

    Re. the broader context of Richard’s post:

    As a regular synchrotron user (I guess in recent years that our group has spent somewhere between 2 and 3 months per year at various synchrotrons), the question of ‘big’ vs. ‘small’ science is certainly a very important issue. This is particularly true given that the first beamlines at the new UK synchrotron ( Diamond will come online in 2007. Amongst the first tranche of these beamlines will be a photoelectron emission microscopy (PEEM) facility dedicated to nanoscience. So I’m very much hoping that it’ll be a case of “where big science meets small science”!


  5. ..sigh…

    The italicised “I” (italics for emphasis) in the previous post looks like a forward slash. Drat.



  6. I’ll try to avoid shameless spamming in the future. The LASAW-NC is similar to an instrument, called the LAWave, that was developed by Fraunhofer Institute (of Germany). I’m not familiar to the Cornell system (but I will definitely have a look at the Applied Physics Letter article).

    You are definitely right about “full-featured” AFM systems, although the Veeco (DI) system is a little pricy for what you get. An AFM system for UHV environment will definitely set you back $200K or more. Omicron Nanotechnology has a good UHV system. In any case, AFMs are good for morphology, friction, and magnetic measurments. They cannot tell you anything about chemical composition nor mechanical properties such as hardness, elasticity, and what not. New instrumentation is needed to analyze these properties, especially for chemical composition analysis.

  7. To my mind, the US needs better neutron sources, so there is probably little point in them settling for second best. The improvements being made at ISIS (TS2) are helpful, so we shouid not invest billions in a new spallation source if we do not need it. I have heard discussions concerning the new European Spallation Source and the scientific case is very weak; in fact it amounts to basically the Americans are getting one, so we should too.

    It is irresponsible to spend $1-$2 billion on untested ideas. The SNS is to be completed next year, so it seems reasonable to me that we can afford to wait maybe three years before proceeding. We can then see what is being done with a next generation neutron source and any case for a European Spallation Source that we as a community make will be that much stronger.

    A final point the SNS offers perhaps a flux factor of 10 improvement over other pulsed sources. There are a variety of directions that we can see research going with this sort of improvement, especially concerning inelastic scattering and kinetics studies. However nice this might be, it does not represent a new paradigm in neutron sources. Now, if we could get neutron beams like the ESRF produces x-rays….


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