ARCHIVED - Canadian nanotech shoots for space

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October 04, 2010— Montréal, Quebec

Last June at the Quebec National Assembly, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette presented Premier Jean Charest with a tiny slab of clear plastic weighing a tenth of a gram.

Embedded at the slab's centre, on an even tinier millimetre-square speck, was a polymer scroll bearing the names of all 710 recipients of the Ordre national du Québec, which Payette had carried on a flight to the International Space Station.

The microscopic scroll, comprising about 20,000 gold-filled characters, demonstrated the joint nanoimprint lithography capabilities of the NRC Industrial Materials Institute (NRC-IMI) and Quebec's Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS).

Left to right: Maryse Lassonde, President of the Ordre national du Québec, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette and Quebec Premier Jean Charest at the scroll presentation in June 2010. Photo: François Nadeau.

Left to right: Maryse Lassonde, President of the Ordre national du Québec, Canadian astronaut Julie Payette and Quebec Premier Jean Charest at the scroll presentation in June 2010. Photo: François Nadeau

Nanoimprint lithography (NIL), basically high-resolution printing done at a tiny scale, enables quick prototyping and mass production of multifunctional nanomaterials for information technology or biomedical applications, including rapid diagnostics. These include clinical, food safety, biological and environmental "labs on a chip" that blend microfluidic technology with electronic and biological sensors.

"We are involved in this field and we want to help space exploration, which also bears on health and complex experiments, in order to run diagnostics and monitoring," says Dr. Teodor Veres, leader of the NRC-IMI group that produced the die for the tiny souvenir.

As its name implies, nanoimprint lithography (NIL) enables high-resolution printing at a very small scale. Invented at Princeton University in the 1990s, it uses hard moulds to press multiple copies of an original master into a pliable polymer. The NIL team at NRC-IMI and the nanotechnology team at INRS are dedicated to helping Canada build a critical mass of research and manufacturing expertise to develop it.

For the Ordre national du Québec presentation, INRS used the newly installed electron beam lithography tool to etch the tiny mould in silicon, while NRC-IMI imprinted the mould into softer plastic to create the scroll.

NIL can be used to manufacture large quantities of miniature devices inexpensively. Because the technique can form tiny three-dimensional shapes, it can be a critical production method for information technology, medical and environmental sensors, and "labs-on-a-chip."

His group's working devices haven't yet reached the space station, but they have achieved sub-orbital flight. NRC-IMI, in collaboration with the Infectious Disease Research Centre at Laval University and the Canadian Space Agency, is currently testing a tiny DNA detector on parabolic aircraft flights, in which a specially equipped jet recreates weightless conditions for short periods with a series of roller coaster-like dives and climbs. Their results are helping to refine the device and others like it for eventual use in the weightlessness of outer space.

Labs on chips are well suited for space missions where weight and space are at a premium, says Dr. Veres. "The payload is not very high, but they can perform a lot of different laboratory analyses - complex operations that only 15 or 20 years ago could only be done with very heavy and large machines in laboratories."

Printed on a dot in the plastic slab shown here, all 710 names of Ordre national du Québec recipients could easily fit on the flag of the Bluenose Schooner on a Canadian dime.

Printed on a dot in the plastic slab shown here, all 710 names of Ordre national du Québec recipients could easily fit on the flag of the Bluenose Schooner on a Canadian dime.

He stresses, however, that NRC set up its nanoimprint lithography facility in Boucherville, Quebec for solid terrestrial reasons. Nano- to micro-scale imprinting on polymers can be used to create microscopically three-dimensional devices for specialized rapid diagnostics, sensing, spectroscopy and genetic testing for medical, food safety and defence uses, among others. They can also be used to develop microchip circuits. However, since most chip foundries are in Asia, NRC-IMI concentrated on the diagnostic niche to support growth of a homegrown Canadian capacity in diagnostics, says Dr. Veres.

"The capacity for printing out low-cost polymer prototypes opens the door to develop industries already present in Canada," he adds. "That is what this initiative is all about." According to Dr. Veres, Canadian universities are doing "tremendous" research in new diagnostic systems, but don't have the ability to easily commercialize their research for mass production and use. NIL allows researchers and businesses to stamp out their products very inexpensively and quickly, with low cost materials.

Close up of names inscribed on the scroll, which is best viewed with a powerful electron microscope.

Close up of names inscribed on the scroll, which is best viewed with a powerful electron microscope.

Placing lab-on-a-chip diagnostics in the mainstream could also reduce national health care costs in the near and medium future. Canada's aging population drives medical care as a growing part of provincial and federal budgets, says Dr. Veres. Inexpensive devices that give precise, near-instant results at the point of care would save lab costs, and also reduce the amount of drugs prescribed for precautionary reasons before tests come back from traditional labs.

"Julie Payette's presentation was good publicity for us, but the real worth and real potential of this technology is that, with its cost and speed, it can make real differences in developing the next generation of diagnostics," says Dr. Veres. "That will have a huge effect on Canadians and on Canada."

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