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NZ nanotechnologists onto big things

21 June 2006

NZ nanotechnologists onto big things

Christchurch company Nano Cluster Devices Ltd is one step closer to becoming first on the world market with a new nanotechnology product, which could be a key enabler for a future hydrogen energy market.

The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology is investing $582,000 over three years in Nano Cluster Devices (NCD) for development of hydrogen sensors using the company’s unique nanotechnology. Nanotechnology involves manipulating atoms and modules to make a huge range of new materials and consumer products, and is considered at the forefront of international science.

With a technical team headed by Dr Simon Brown, NCD has been steadily edging towards commercialising products built on the nanoscale, with dimensions just one billionth of a metre or around 100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

NCD Managing Director Michael Hawkins says the Foundation investment will significantly aid NCD’s work and advance commercialisation of its proprietary technology, as well as to develop commercial manufacturing processes.

NCD has already filed international patents that effectively fence off and protect its nanotechnology from competitors.

“NCD is marketing this novel self-assembly approach to nanotechnology to the world and we ultimately hope that we’ll not only be building hydrogen sensors but will also produce new kinds of computer chips and other high value products,” says Mr Hawkins.

“The international market for hydrogen sensors is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Computers built on the nanoscale could be a hundred times more powerful than those available today – there is just so much potential that it is really just a matter of imagination.”

Industries, such as pharmaceutical and oil refineries, are already using large amounts of hydrogen, and with the growing hydrogen economy there is strong demand for sensors. Hydrogen is explosive and the sensors may be required to detect minute leaks. It is estimated that as many as six or seven sensors could be needed in a hydrogen powered car, putting pressure on developers to use innovation to produce sensors that are small and economical.

Mr Hawkins expects NCD’s sensors will be smaller, more sensitive and cheaper than anything else available around the world.

Confidential negotiations, initiated through NCD’s recent licensing agreement and strategic partnership with US NanoDynamics Inc, are already underway which would open international channels of distribution for NCD’s products.

“The outcomes for NCD will depend on the markets targeted but whatever numbers you look at, they are big,” says Mr Hawkins of the future payback on investment.

Graham Scown, a Business Manager with the Foundation, says NCD’s path of success is a working example of a company that has consistently applied itself to leading edge research and development, using small amounts of government investment to build its capabilities.

Dr Brown was a member of a University of Canterbury team awarded the first large Marsden Grant to study nanotechnology in New Zealand, received in 1998 after he moved here from Australia. A few years later, the Foundation made a further significant investment in this team through NERF (New Economic Research Fund) which was focused on more applied nanotechnology research. This fund was established to support basic research aimed at stimulating new knowledge intensive enterprises and sectors. Other investment has also come from the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

NCD is a spin out company from the University of Canterbury. It started three years ago, backed by a network of Christchurch investors, to focus on commercial applications for its unique nanotechnology.

“That spin out process has allowed us to develop a commercial structure that focuses on making money and developing commercial products. Universities don’t have that focus,” says NCD Chairman, John Walley.

“Also, protecting our intellectual property (IP) was vital but the patent process is expensive, and so it was important to have private backing.”

The latest investment from the Foundation will contribute significantly to NCD’s research.

“We will be taking on more staff and will be able to push the development work along faster and further and it also shows graduates there are jobs for them in New Zealand,” says Dr Brown.

Dr Brown describes nanotechnology as transformational technology that will revolutionise life as we know it. He says it has the potential to change New Zealand from an agricultural producer to an industrial based economy because of the vast range of products that can be produced using nanotechnology.

“It is obvious it’s the next big thing and will have a huge impact on the global economy. I got into it because I thought it was important for New Zealand to be involved or we would miss out and be left behind the rest of the world.”

About Nano Cluster Devices Ltd

The company was formed in early 2003 to commercialise a unique combination of top down and bottom up approaches to nanotechnology. The key aspect of the technooogy is that nano wires can be self-assembled between electrical contacts without the time consuming and expensive manipulation that typically hinders the production of nano devices. For additional information about Nano Cluster Devices Ltd vist: www.nanoclusterdevices.com

About the Foundation
The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology invests over $460 million a year on behalf of the New Zealand Government, in research, science and technology. These investments are made to enhance the wealth and well being of New Zealanders. Through its Technology New Zealand suite of schemes, the Foundation assists companies to undertake research and development projects that result in new, export-focussed products, processes or services. Investment from the Foundation is directed at supporting technical risk and the building of technical skills and expertise in companies.

The Technology for Business Growth scheme (TBG) can provide substantial investment (from $50,000 to over $2,000,000) for leading edge, applied research and experimental development that stretches businesses beyond their existing technical capability.

ENDS



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