Nanopatterning:
tiny technology, huge impact

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They may not be visible to the naked eye, but the minute trenches, ridges, curves and grooves of nano-structured patterns and surfaces have a very visible impact in a wide range of fields, from micronanoelectronics to photonics, security, biotechnology and medicine.

Creating patterns and structures at this scale (a nanometre is a billionth of a metre) is a delicate task which is only possible with special techniques and methods. Thanks to the NaPa (‘Emerging Nanopatterning Methods’) project, Europe’s capabilities in this exciting new field are now stronger than ever. The project brought together 36 research groups from 12 EU Member States plus Switzerland and Russia. The team, which included some 80 % of Europe’s key players in the field, contained an even mix of scientists from industry, research institutes and universities.

By working together, they created a vibrant, united nanopatterning research community in Europe. In addition to developing new materials and tools for nanopatterning, the project partners filed several patents, published hundreds of articles and founded three spin-off companies. The project partners are continuing to work together to bring their results closer to commercialisation.

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Creating common knowledge and standards

When the project started, Europe’s nanopatterning research community was fragmented, and high costs, combined with a lack of standards, tools and processes, meant that this promising technology was not being fully exploited.

With this in mind, the first task of the NaPa consortium was to pool their nanotechnology knowledge and know-how and disseminate it across Europe. At the same time, the project partners worked on developing upscalable processes for nanopatterning.

An important product which came out of this work is the NaPa process library, which sets out the tools, materials and processes involved in the manufacturing of a number of products which involve nanopatterning, such as polymer-based optical elements, organic LEDs (light-emitting diodes), or lab-on-a-chip systems.

The library is designed for companies interested in developing products involving nanopatterning. Nanopatterning has applications in many fields, and so could potentially be used by a wide range of companies in Europe and elsewhere. They will be able to pick the appropriate nanopatterning process from the library, thereby saving them from having to develop it themselves.

Developing new nanopatterning devices

The project partners have also been working on new devices to make nanopatterning more effective. Previously, nanopatterns were created using a technique called e-beam lithography. However, this took a long time and only worked on smaller surfaces.

The new technique developed by NaPa is faster and works on larger surfaces. The researchers took their inspiration from the more traditional embossing process, in which a mould is pressed into a soft material to create the required pattern. The achievement of the NaPa team was to miniaturise this technique down to the nanoscale level.

In their system, a patterned silicon chip is used as a stamp, and the pattern is transferred to a polymer layer by imprinting. This method allows manufacturers to replicate sub-100 nm scale geometries on much larger areas. Another advantage of the system is its ability to create nanopatterns on optical and electronic materials and biomaterials. In electronics, for example, advances in nanopatterning are key to reducing the size of transistors in microchips, making them faster and more powerful.

Training up the next generation

Another important strand of the project involved education and training. As more and more nanotechnology applications emerge, it is estimated that in the next 10 years alone, the nanotechnology sector will need an extra 400 000 trained people, including scientists, technicians and engineers working in a wide range of disciplines.

To address this need, the project partners set up the highly successful PANAMA (‘Patterning at the Nanoscale – Methods and Applications’) summer school. Over 3 editions, more than 70 young scientists from a range of disciplines received training in nanopatterning through both theoretical classes and hands-on experiments. Combined with the postgraduates and young scientists, the number of young people trained in the project exceeds 200.

Targeting an even younger audience, NaPa also produced a video for children aged between 10 and 14. The film follows the adventures of two young children in nanotechnology; the aim of the product is to awaken young people’s interest in nanotechnology and encourage them to see it in a positive light.

Next steps for NaPa

As a relatively new technology with potential applications in so many fields, nanopatterning clearly has great commercial potential. The project has already filed several patents for its technologies and even established three spin-off companies, in Denmark, France and Switzerland. The Danish company specialises in the manufacture of stamps for nanoimprint lithography (NIL), carries out nanoimprint services and offers nanoimprint consultancy advice. The French company provides services for innovative technologies, while the Swiss company does the same for nanopatterning.

According to the project partners, part of the project’s success is due to the way the partners created a strong community spirit, thanks to which they have been able to benefit from the added value that comes from joining forces. As a result of their openness and cooperation, NaPa is now the state-of-the-art driver in the field.