2009 Finalist: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science
World Leading Science Creating Revolutionary Outcomes
“I’ll know we’ve been successful when we see our ideas are transformed into products you can buy at Canadian Tire,” says Dr. Robert Wolkow. The world-renowned nano-scientist is only half joking. He focuses his passion for studying the fundamentals of nature on issues most likely to create useful technologies. He strives for Nobel level excellence in his academic work and for major industrial impact from the practical ramifications of that work. Some say it is a fair bet he will do both.
Dr Wolkow has been advancing leading-edge nano-science for more than two decades. He was the first to capture an atom-by-atom view of a chemical reaction. A few years later, he determined the atomic structure of the silicon surface that coats all computer chips. Five years ago he and his group created a new concept for a transistor, the essential switch device underlying all electronics, made of a single molecule.
Dr. Wolkow’s multidisciplinary team at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, housed at the University of Alberta, have continually advanced the microscopes and other tools that make leading nano-science possible – he calls these “new eyes and new hands”. Recently, the team invented and patented the world’s sharpest object – a tip that terminates in a single atom. Wolkow likes the description the Berliner Zeitung newspaper came up with: “Die spitzeste Nadel der Welt”. News coverage was enormous, leading in turn to the largest web traffic that administrators had ever seen at the University.
The nano-tip turns out to be a wondrous entity – opening doors to new tests of the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, while at the same time enabling extraordinary new microscopes. In one direction, Wolkow works on science and technology with Hitachi High Technologies to create commercial applications – a $14 million project. Wolkow and his team expect to see their scientific advances soon lead to technology used by scientists in labs around the world.
When wearing his professor’s hat, Dr. Wolkow shares his passion for studying nature with his students.
“To me, studying the fundamentals of interactions among atoms and molecules is little different than watching with awe as bees collect pollen,” explains Wolkow, whose years of formative research have contributed more than any other scientist’s to the international recognition Alberta now enjoys as a leading centre of nanotechnology research.
“Our transistor promises enormous power savings,” says Dr. Wolkow. “It uses only one electron charge to achieve switching, rather than the 100,000 required by conventional computers. It could be the ultimate green technology for building electronics and computers.”
His current challenge is exploring the potential of quantum dots, tiny “bottles” for controllably holding electrons. He and his team created single atom quantum dots, making possible a new level of control over individual electrons. This leading scientific development opens new possibilities for revolutionary computation schemes, including a quantum computer. Suddenly, the idea of functional computers “smaller than a speck of dust,” as Dr. Wolkow puts it, is no longer science fiction. Through their scientific work on new computer concepts, the Wolkow team is also creating the real potential for new Alberta-based companies based upon revolutionary developments in nano-science.
“Creating new technologies creates a new economic base. And that’s important in Alberta and in Canada. But it can only happen with the transformative power of science. I want to leave a legacy of having made this place richer and better!” says Dr. Wolkow.