It's a Small World: Canada's Hub for Nanotech

For Canadian researchers and graduate students working in nanotechnology, career prospects may soon be getting a boost, thanks to the expansion of a state-of-the-art research facility in Edmonton, Alberta. Currently filling only one floor of a building at the University of Alberta, the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) promises to become Canada's nanotech hub when their $40 million, 15,000 square metre facility opens its doors later this fall. And once the doors are open, scientists will be needed to productively fill the new space.

"Our facility will be among the most technologically advanced research centres in the world," says Nils Petersen, Director General of the National Institute for Nanotechnology. "So we have a multi-year, international recruiting campaign going on now to attract the best and brightest."


Established in 2001, this collaborative effort of the National Research Council (NRC) and the University of Alberta received $120 million for its first 5 years of operation, with the federal government contributing half and the province of Alberta and the university investing the remainder. While most of the infrastructure and equipment are paid out of the school and province's share, the feds are handling most of the hiring and operational costs.

The new permanent home for the institute will have the latest in scientific equipment, including electron and scanning probe microscopes and specialized laboratories geared to work on chemical and biochemical synthesis and analysis of material structures at the atomic scale. These new bench areas promise to be the "quietest" in Canada, offering ultra-low levels of electromagnetic interference, acoustic noise, and vibrations--optimal conditions for nanoscale research.

Artist rendering of National Institute for Nanotechnology (COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF CANADA)


NINT expansion is already well under way. The current staff of 80 is expected to grow to 200 over the next 2 years. According to Petersen, the institute will be looking for talent to fill a variety of positions. "We expect to be looking for a handful of senior investigators, a dozen or so junior scientists, and many more technical personnel to run the equipment and provide support." In addition there will also be training opportunities for scores of graduate and post-doctoral researchers in collaboration with University of Alberta.

Some of these positions will be hired directly through the NRC, others through the university, and some will be hired jointly. Shannon Jones, NINT Communications Advisor, urges anyone interested in the latest job competitions to sign up for their e-mail alerts . She also points out that postdocs and recent Ph.D. graduates might want to check out funding opportunities through the Research Associates Program run by the NRC. "It's a lot like a postdoc but is more in a national lab environment and it's a great first step to a more permanent position," she notes.

Nanotech growing in Canada

Petersen describes Canada's nanotech research community as vibrant and strong, numbering in the few thousands, with a solid foundation in the university and national laboratory system. The Canadian Research Chair program has supported more than 50 researchers that involve nanotech, from within Canada as well as from abroad. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by the public sector on infrastructure and facilities.

But Petersen is quick to note that more needs to be done. He says that members of Canada's nano community are looking for the federal government to take the lead in setting out a national strategy. This step will be crucial, he believes, if Canada is to become a world leader in this field. "I think we're becoming a player--we have the talent and are building the infrastructure--but we don't yet have national cohesiveness."

Eight to ten billion dollars are spent on nanotechnology across the world each year with an even split between the public and private sectors, so industry is a major driving force. Petersen believes that the business sector has an interest in investing in corporate nanotechnology to make their current products better and--hopefully--to develop new breakthrough products.

Part of NRC's objective with the institute is to stimulate the nanotech industry in Canada. To this end, NINT will act as an interface between the academic and corporate worlds, facilitating technology transfer and adapting new technology to suit current and future applications. An entire floor of the new building will be dedicated to tech transfer. "NRC has a whole infrastructure that supports bringing the results of the research to market or help[ing] people who might need access to some of our team in order to improve a process," says Jones.

Under One Roof

NINT is an integrated, multidisciplinary institution involving researchers in physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, informatics, pharmacy, and medicine. Petersen is excited about the prospects of an open-concept building where medical and chemistry labs will be right next door to physics and engineering labs. This convergence of people, he thinks, will stimulate collaborations naturally. "We are hoping to have research programs that are focused on projects that help bridge these different types of disciplines."

Researcher checks sample in Scanning Tunneling Microscope at NINT (COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF CANADA)

Researchers, for instance, can use optical, mechanical, or electrochemical tools that probe at very small scales, to explore biological phenomena at the cellular level. "So what you're doing is taking the tools that are traditionally for the physicist, who uses them to investigate single molecules, and applying them to living cells," he explains.

Petersen believes that this multidisciplinary approach at the NINT will be a big draw for early-career researchers looking to broaden their knowledge. "We are offering an environment where you can hone yourself in multiple skills and be more attractive in a career aspect," he adds. "Because, when it comes to nanotechnology, it is this very possibility for exchange and interaction that's really at the core of progress."

For more information on NINT's research and job alert visit their official Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is the Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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