Making big-time progress on the nano scale: physicist Robert Wolkow shortlisted for ASTech award

Wolkow is one of three 2015 ASTech finalists from the Faculty of Science.

30 October 2015

Note: This story was originally published on the ASTech Foundation website.

Internationally renowned nanoscience leader Robert Wolkow has been shortlisted for an ASTech award in Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology. Wolkow is a physics professor, an iCORE and Alberta Innovates Technology Futures Research Chair, the Principal Research Officer at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, and Chief Technical Officer at Quantum Silicon Incorporated. Through all this, his world gravitates around a singular point: nanotechnology.

The chemical physicist has made enormous breakthroughs in nanotechnology through learning how to control structure at the single atom level. "We can not only see materials at that level, but we can move atoms and position them as we like," he explains. "With computation and theoretical models, we can predict what would be useful atomic structures to build, and we build them."

Wolkow and his team at the University of Alberta and the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) are building new devices that are useful in a wide range of industries. While the possibilities for nanotechnology are virtually endless, his main focus is a device that can replace conventional transistors found in electronics.

Transistors are semiconductor devices that amplify and switch electronic signals to perform a wide variety of functions inside technology. But transistor technology can only go so far, and Wolkow and his team are dedicated to creating a next-generation replacement for transistors.

As time goes on, transistors have gotten smaller - leading to the modern devices we use today. Wolkow says the point where transistors will no longer become relevant is closer than one might think. "There's an end to the current technology road map that the whole world is following," Wolkow says. "In our lifetime we've seen technology get cheaper, smaller and faster, but that process is saturating and coming to a limit now. Nobody believes we'll be able to do that for very much longer."

Wolkow says the trick is to follow a new path, rather than being constricted by the old way of doing things. "We're aiming to make circuitry that consumes one thousand times less power than today's circuitry," he says. "This would lead to enhanced portability and function, longer battery life, less energy consumption and less materials being used. It's really the ideal green technology."

With his work in this field well underway, Wolkow believes Alberta is close to being an international leader in nanotechnology. His team's new technology has universal applications in today's world and Alberta has all of the elements for success available throughout the province.

When referencing his work, Wolkow says one of the biggest challenges his team has to overcome is competing with communities that have more resources than Alberta. "I've received tremendous support in Alberta from programs that were meant to create foundational, new revolutionary information," Wolkow says. But he admits there can be challenges in taking the product to the next level. He has found success in patenting the technology and making alliances with third parties including Lockheed Martin to further develop the technology, but says there is always more that could be done.

"We've met all our research goals set about a dozen years ago" Wolkow says. "Over the last five years we've been driving a transition to commercialization, with great support, and with great success. But in some ways Alberta isn't quite ready for us and the revolution we have in mind. Our technology has the potential to be the biggest industry in Alberta - bigger than oil."

While Wolkow knows it would be easy to pick up and go to Silicon Valley, he strongly believes in the importance of training future scientist entrepreneurs in Alberta and contributing to the larger movement to put Alberta on the global map as a nanotechnology hub.

Faculty of Science and the ASTechs

The Alberta Science and Technology Leadership (ASTech) Foundation is a not-for-profit organization founded through an industry initiative in 1989 to showcase the substantial achievements in science and technology in Alberta and to promote the importance of these activities to social and economic benefit. To date, 24 faculty members from the University of Alberta Faculty of Science have won awards.

In addition to Wolkow's nomination for Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology, other 2015 nominees from the Faculty of Science include Todd Lowary for Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Science and Arturo Sanchez-Azoefeifa for Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Technology and Innovation. The winners of the 2015 ASTechs will be announced Friday, November 6 at the awards ceremony in Calgary.