SFU nanotechnology lab | BCBusiness

SFU nanotechnology lab | BCBusiness
Working on projects of a minute scale is all in a day's work at SFU's $41-million nanotechnology facility on Burnaby Mountain.

Big things come from thinking small at SFU’s nanotechnology lab.

Try to imagine fitting 500 million holes in one square centimetre. “You can’t comprehend it. We’re talking about holes so small that nothing will fill them — not dirt or dust, not even nail polish, as one woman tried to do,” says Doug Blakeway, entrepreneur in residence at SFU.

Working on an infinitesimally tiny scale is daily practice at 4D Labs, SFU’s relatively unsung nanotechnology research centre. The $41-million, 5,000-square-foot lab on Burnaby Mountain (the Ds stand for design, development, demonstration and delivery) opened in 2007, and boasts a nanoimaging facility, a laboratory for advanced spectroscopy and imaging research and a Class 100 “clean room” with Class One mini-environments. “It looks like something out of a science-fiction movie,” notes Blakeway. “People are wearing gowns, head gear, booties, the works.”

If it all sounds sci-fi and overly specialized, that’s because it is. Scientists and researchers from the chemistry, physics, biology and engineering science departments at UBC and SFU are regularly onsite. But while academia is where 4D Labs began, insiders say it has a promising future in the commercial sector. The lab leases its resources to startups, and on its website boasts of being able to marry its technology with its “business acumen.”

To date, the lab’s advances have been applied across a variety of commercial specializations, including clean energy, solar energy, lighting, biomedicine and photonics, says Vivien Lo, commercialization program coordinator for 4D Labs. Companies including Automotive Fuel Cell Corp. and Cooledge Lighting Inc. have used the lab’s one-stop access to cutting-edge technology, an R&D knowledge base and onsite researchers to take new products to market.

Bozena Kaminska, a professor of engineering science and Canada Research Chair at SFU, says that five to 10 companies and organizations are using the facility at any given time. She says the lab collaborates with companies from Vancouver and around the world, ranging from small startups to big government organizations. While confidentiality agreements keep her from divulging details, she does mention BC Hydro and Nanotech Security Corp. as examples.

Doug Blakeway (who is just one of SFU’s three entrepreneurs in residence) is also chair and CEO of Nanotech Security Corp., which uses nanotechnology for authentication purposes, such as fighting counterfeiting, and is taking its product to market this fall. At 4D Labs, Nanotech Security developed a way to duplicate the iridescent wings of a Central American butterfly, which trap and reflect light creating the illusion of colours not actually on the wings. The process, called surface plasmonics, involves firing atoms at a material (“any material, from currency to a Louis Vuitton handbag, to your tooth,” says Blakeway) to perforate a thin layer with holes 2,000 times smaller than a human hair. The holes can be configured to store data or make designs, words, numbers or even photos on any scale, from those visible to the naked eye to ones that can only be seen with a high-powered microscope. The result is a brilliant, durable feature that’s extremely hard to counterfeit and far more sophisticated than the holograms that currently adorn our currency, Blakeway says.

According to Blakeway, 4D’s technology and expertise, combined with SFU’s entrepreneur-in-residence program, brings ideas to market much faster than entrepreneurs on their own could manage. “There’s just a gold mine of young talent ready to do something with it,” he says.