The term nanotechnology is often used today – where did you first come into contact with the very tiniest of things?
Christian Schönenberger: My father worked at IBM. I was fascinated to see how the transistors he worked with became smaller and smaller. That set me on the path to becoming an electrical engineer. In 1990 I wrote my PhD thesis at the IBM research laboratory – at a time when the scanning tunnelling microscope was discovered. The atomic scale fascinated me, added to which microfabrication was getting ever smaller. But the word nano was hardly used at then.
It was only the new microscopy methods (scanning tunnelling microscopy and atomic force microscopy – ed.) that made nanometres palpable, and so the term nano was coined. It opened up whole new areas. Today it is possible not only to understand and produce nanoparticles, but also to design them so that they have a particular desired property. Industry has also made use of this, giving rise to new products. At the same time, existing products have been miniaturized – you only have to think of today’s microchips with millions of transistors.
Can they get even smaller?
The physical question as to just how small transistors can get still occupies me today. Experts keep postulating that the components could soon no longer get any smaller. But miniaturization continues to this day and no one knows where it is going to end.
How important is nanotechnology for industry?
Many people say nanotechnology will disappear again. I’m absolutely convinced it won’t; if anything it will become increasingly important. The phenomena that take place on this scale will remain and we will discover even more of them and work with them more intensively. Perhaps one day it will no longer be called nanotechnology, but the applications will remain.
You played a leading role in the founding of the Swiss Nanosciences Institute. Why do we need this institute?
It’s a long story and begins with the National Centre of Competence in Research, NCCR Nanoscale Science. Basel set great store by new microscopy methods early on. Professor Joachim Güntherodt immediately wanted to set up a National Centre of Competence in Research for nanotechnology and asked whether I would take part. I said yes, even though I felt the University of Basel had little chance as a minnow compared with the ETH or EPFL. Added to which, the strategy of the university in natural sciences at the time was focused solely on the life sciences, so we were basically rather exotic creatures in Basel with our nanoscience. Fortunately, we won over a few biologists and chemists for the project, so we could submit it with a broad degree of support – and we were actually awarded the NCCR for 12 years – ultimately also with the full support of the University of Basel. Towards the end of the 12 years we wanted to continue with our work and, as luck would have it, Canton Aargau was receptive to the idea of becoming a partner. That’s how the Swiss Nanosciences Institute came into being.
You described nanoscience as an exotic field for the University of Basel. Has that since changed?
The perception has changed, and nano has recently become one of the focal areas of the University of Basel alongside the life sciences. We are taken more seriously today, and our institute is considered a flagship project. We are certainly also one of the few institutions of the University of Basel that has a kind of public-private partnership and is engaged in more than ivory tower research.
How does collaboration with industry come about?
Even in the NCCR we were already seeking to facilitate spin-off companies, but we had little collaboration with industry at that time. In the SNI, we were set clear targets by Canton Aargau. For example, we have to invest one-third of the five million francs in the network. This means that partners like the Paul Scherrer Institute, the University of Applied Sciences and regional industry are involved. We therefore started the NanoArgovia projects, in which the network partners can collaborate specifically with industry for one or two years. That’s going very well.
Why is industry so important to you?
I would like to see students training not primarily for an academic career. Of 20 students, about 19 will have to go into industry, so I believe it is essential to know the needs of industry. In addition, the number of students is increasing everywhere, university degrees are becoming ever more important and at the same time jobs are disappearing to low-wage countries. If we are all going to end up in banks or insurance companies, then you have to wonder whether a technical or scientific qualification is even necessary now. To make sure it doesn’t come to that, we need to ensure that new jobs are created in this high-tech sector. Nanotechnology is and enabler for this. My worry is that Switzerland will become a country in which everyone is an academic and no one produces anything anymore.
Are there any ideas as to how collaboration with industry could be improved?
There is always room for improvement. We would like to attract industry projects that are not yet sponsored for example by the Commission for Technology and Innovation because they are still too vague. It would be a success for us if the CTI project came to fruition one to two years after our project – unfortunately this has happened too little to date. Conversely, it should be made possible to inspire people from university more for applied projects. When you look at the situation closely, you find that it is always the same people who submit proposals in this field, because they already have an affinity for such applications. The question is how to get someone from basic research interested in issues that arise in industry. Unfortunately I think a great deal gets lost here, since a problem in industry can also inspire basic research. It is often not possible to draw a distinction between basic research and applied research. Perhaps you simply have to make sure students can have a period of work experience in industry early on and learn what work outside university could be like. In this way, there would probably also be fewer barriers even to founding a company.
Do you think public sponsorship of innovation makes sense?
I’m employed at the university and therefore financed entirely out of the public purse, and in a sense this is also sponsorship of innovation – after all, the taxpayer has certain expectations of me. For example, we are supposed to provide students with a sound education; another expectation might be that we do something for the economy – to a certain extent a return on investment, for example in the form of collaborative projects with industry.
The Swiss NanoConvention takes place in Basel at the end of June. What can participants expect?
An event packed with nanotechnology, because the CLINAM conference takes place in the same week. The Swiss NanoConvention on Thursday and Friday, 30 June and 1 July, wants to bring the nano community together – whether from the academic setting or from industry. The huge breadth of the disciplines is also the really big challenge, because the various participants speak widely differing languages in their special fields. But the presentations at the Swiss NanoConvention should be comprehensible for everyone present and offer a good and comprehensive glimpse into nanotechnology. Particularly for visitors from industry there will also be exhibitors there who will be presenting marketable applications or will be interesting in cooperative ventures.
Christian Schönenberger helped nanoscience to become a major focus at the Department of Physics of the University in Basel. In 2006, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute in Basel was founded on his initiative. Additionally, Schönenberger is a co-founder and active participant within the Basel Centre of Excellence in Quantum Computing and Quantum Coherence (QC2).
Before this, Christian Schönenberger worked for Philips Research (NL) where he developed, among other things, a low-temperature scanning tunnelling microscope. He was appointed full professor at the University of Basel in 1995, where he established Low Temperature Physics and Micro and Nanofabrication. Schönenberger studied electrical engineering and physics and wrote his PhD thesis in the field of experimental physics at the IBM Zurich research laboratory.