U.S., French governments, industry
get together to advance nanotech

PARIS, July 16, 2002 — With the international race to advance nanosciences in full swing, researchers can move faster if they share information. It is in this spirit, that the French and American governments are seeking to increase nanotechnology research cooperation.

“Science is something that is very individualistic and at the same time very collaborative,” said Iran Thomas, deputy associate director of the Office of Basic Energy Sciences at the U.S. Department of Energy, during a recent bilateral brainstorming session in Paris. “But if everyone is in the same place, it can become very narrow,” he added, noting that one country can become dominated by a certain school of thought.

Senior representatives from the U.S. National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense all went to Paris to discuss U.S.-French collaboration. “What has been agreed is that we should organize regular workshops between the two countries,” said Roger Maynard of the French Ministry of Research. “We also talked about the possibility of exchanging young researchers, of participating in dual training sessions and the prospect of a bilateral cooperation agreement.”

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Other potential partnerships include providing additional funding for French and American research centers wishing to work together and share the cost of very expensive tools, such as lithography equipment.

“We are just getting to the point in nanotechnology where we need to simulate and measure, whereas before, we relied mostly on empirical proof,” said Kevin Lyons of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “This is an area of potential collaboration.”

The talk of bilateral cooperation on nanotechnology concerns strictly precompetitive research. “There is no focus on transfer to industry, because once you get into that, people get very nationalistic,” said Thomas of the Energy Department. “We are looking at things at the basic research level, this is about basic knowledge; it’s up to business people to take it from there.”

While the governments talk, businesspeople are taking up their own initiatives. Motorola in the United States, Philips in Holland and STMicroelectronics in France joined forces earlier this year to create the next generation of chips, measuring 90 to 32 nanometers. The five-year research project is to take place outside Grenoble, in the town of Crolles, where researchers from the three companies will work in a new research and development center called Crolles2 (PDF, 1.21MB).

Commercial international research agreements like this one can be delicate propositions. The idea is to work together in order to get onto the playing field, but to stop once the basic technology is developed. “We are all competitors, but we also cooperate in areas like this,” said Laurent Gouzenes, from STMicroelectronics. “Thanks to this agreement, we will be able to develop these new transistors in a third less time than we would have been able to otherwise.”

While funds dedicated to small tech in Europe as a whole compare more or less to U.S. budgets, nanotechnology funding in a country of 60 million people like France, is more modest. Yet, American small tech representatives argue that France is nonetheless a good partner. “You really have to consider that French national nanotechnology programs are a lot bigger than any of our state programs,” Thomas said. “And whenever we have had researchers from France come as guest researchers in our labs, it was very beneficial.”


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