“You want a camera which is extremely accurate when looking at faraway planets?” asks Professor Henk Nijmeijer, Scientific Director NOMI and Chairman of the Science Board NOMI. “There’s a lot of symmetry when making observations at the nanoscale.” Nanotechnology sits at the intersection between fundamental and applied research, a relatively new concept which promises to revolutionize fields as diverse as healthcare and manufacturing.
In recognition of this interdisciplinary nature, TU/e HTSC and TNO have been collaborating on NOMI (Nano Opto-Mechatronics Instruments) since November 2017. In this article, two key players reflect on the journey so far.
The perfect umbrella
NOMI’s origins lie within TNO, where Dr. Hamed Sadeghian used to work. Now Chairman of Nano-Optomechatronics Instrumentation Development in TU/e’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and a member of the Science Board NOMI, Hamed explains how the collaboration came about. “I started TNO NOMI in 2011. After about seven years of development, we had a good position in the field and the team was sizable. As the leader, my responsibility was to look to the future – the business cycle and revolutionary instruments with new applications.”
The mission of TNO, however, falls outside the scope of the fundamental development needed to bring nanotechnology to the next level. It was clear to Hamed that a partner was necessary. “I looked at several universities and was convinced that TU Eindhoven was the best option. In my view, TU/e can work in very close collaboration with industry. Here, we know how to develop mechatronics systems control and we understand dynamics, the pillars of NOMI.”
“When creating this sort of collaboration,” Henk adds, “HTSC is the perfect umbrella. What does it add in a general context the university or ASML, for example?
It connects different worlds: academia, industry and research organizations like TNO. HTSC provides a means of functioning in this environment.” Hamed nods in agreement. “There is no need to change anything. We benefit a lot from this set-up.”
Looking below the surface
This isn’t HTSC and TNO’s first rodeo – the AMSYSTEMS Center, for instance, has seen them collaborating on issues such as Additive Manufacturing since 2016. This constant contact has led to similar cultures and roadmaps within both organizations, with staff often taking on dual roles. In NOMI, there are three roadmaps: semiconductor manufacturing process metrology, bio-medical instrumentation and gravitational wave sensing.
“BIO-NOMI, as we refer to bio-medical instrumentation, is a clear line of interaction between TU/e and TNO in order to work on ambitious goals. It’s all about how well we’re able to sense what is wrong at a molecular scale when it comes to cancer, for example,” explains Henk. “You can’t go inside living cells as you’ll destroy them, but you still want to see which are affected. In some treatments, you kill parts of the cell – good and bad. How can you make medicine that is transported to exactly the right place in the body? This is the ‘man on the moon’ vision. We are not medical specialists. This is still completely out of our reach for the time being, but we can be influential in the instrumentation that makes steps towards it.”
Naturally, this requires the assistance of experts from a wide range of fields, including chemistry, biology and physics. NOMI is therefore represented at scientific events of all kinds. One example is the ICMS event ‘Nano-Mechatronics Instrumentations (NOMI) to Probe Dynamics at the Nano-scale’, where Hamed will be speaking about the roadmaps and projects on 20 September. Hamed: “These include student projects and now also PhDs with the help of European funding. I also started the company Nearfield Instruments, which is commercializing the results.” One major success story is Nearfield’s high throughput scanning probe microscopy, of which the first products will be shipped to Samsung Electronics early next year – an important breakthrough in NOMI’s work.
“The other focus is on the development of subsurface microscopes,” he continues. “There is a trend towards ultra-early detection of HIV, which is a very smart virus. It goes through a maturation process in order to create an infection, but the external shape doesn’t change, only the internal elements. If you want a tool to really understand how this infection works, doctors need a microscope that can look inside a virus without destroying it.”
Getting the man on the moon
“For me,” says Hamed, “the future of NOMI is twofold. Of course, it’s about moving towards new applications and concepts that most people think are impossible. We show that these can be done and that they solve a problem in society. But we also see these developments as a platform that brings scientists and engineers together. The Brainport area is based on high-tech, complex instruments. Each of the companies has a lifespan for its products, then you create something new. Questions pop up, applications appear. You need concepts that these companies can change into a product and we are doing exactly that – keeping the wheel of innovation turning.”
“One application is the semiconductor environment,” notes Henk, bringing up nanorobotics as a possible future for NOMI. “Again, you want to have sensor information without damaging whatever material you’re talking about. Check out what a nanometer is and then consider a robot of that size. You don’t want this to have a separate actuator, sensor or feedback mechanism on-board, and it will have to move by controlling the magnetic field of its environment. Experimentally, this is not yet possible.”
Part of the difficulty lies in modeling and validation. In order to devise instruments that can perform tests at the nanoscale, controllers must be able to look at atoms from different angles. This is a huge challenge for modern computing. However, as Henk notes, “there are some fundamentals that can help you to write partial differential equations to account for things like temperature gradients. I’m curious to see where we can get in terms of modeling. How can we make models usable and predictable? Throughout everything that I do in my group, Dynamics and Control, I always feel challenged despite my mathematics background. I want to challenge my students with this high-level mathematics too. This is the work that matters to the ASMLs, the VDLs and the whole Brainport area.”
* Henk Nijmeijer, Scientific Director NOMI, Chairman Science Board NOMI and Chairman Dynamics and Control group in TU/e's dept. Mechanical Engineering.
** Hamed Sadeghian, Chairman Nano-Optomechatronics Instrumentation Development in TU/e’s dept. Mechanical Engineering and member Science Board NOMI