First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Jayne Robinson and Ed Aanhane

Nanotechnology is an inescapable part of our everyday lives: so small that it often goes unnoticed. We encounter nanotechnology regularly: it’s in the clothes we wear and the gadgets we use. But nanotechnology is more than just neat inventions. It has the power to impact the world in very meaningful ways – for example, by reducing fuel emissions, cleaning up our energy sources and contributing to the future health of the planet. Innovations in nanotech are often inspired by the natural world, which has had a 4.5-billion-year head start when it comes to the manipulation of materials at the smallest scale. The charismatic Professor Albert Polman is something of a celebrity in his field: he previously headed the Foundation for Fundamental Research on Matter’s AMOLF research laboratory in Amsterdam Science Park, and currently leads a scientific group on nanophotonics there. “There is a whole world of materials and structures at the nano scale,” explains Polman in his bright office at the high-tech AMOLF institute. “We ourselves are entirely made up from nanotechnology. Our cells, veins, nerves: it’s all at the nanoscale. So nano, in that sense, is nothing new. But what is new is that now we can make nano ourselves. It’s completely opened up a new world.” Alongside Japan and the USA, the Netherlands ranks in the top three nations for nanotechnology research and innovation. The driving force behind this excellence is a healthy ecosystem created by collaboration between the government, universities, research institutes and hundreds of companies. But as Polman is quick to point out, “In the end it’s still down to the people. And why do people come here? Well, that’s because it’s Amsterdam. It’s the city itself.”

Polman has taken an active lead in one of the collaborations that has blossomed in Amsterdam’s supportive ecosystem: Solardam, the city’s network of solar collaborators. With the aim of more efficiently harnessing the power of the sun to create ‘fuel’ using nanotechnology, one percentage point at a time. “In this field, every percent counts,” he explains. “The whole solar industry is worth €100 billion per year, and that’s based on our current panels with only 20% efficiency. So if I can make 20% into 21%, that’s worth an extra €5 billion per year.” Increasing the efficiency of solar panels is one of Solardam’s main goals. “It will slowly increase,” he explains. “But not by itself. You have to make inventions that improve the technology: new materials and new nanostructures. That’s what our research is for.” Polman’s belief in the power of solar to transform the planet’s energy use is unwavering, but he’s realistic that for solar to become a viable alternative it must become cheaper than other energy sources. “The next century is going to be the solar century,” he asserts. “I’m convinced it’s going to happen. Not necessarily because I like the environment better than the next person, but because of economics. Solar will simply become cheaper than everything else, and everyone will switch. But for that to happen, we first have to make solar fuels more efficiently.”

Nanolithography breaking ground

Another Amsterdam-based initiative that’s helping to drive the nanotechnology industry forward in crucial ways is the Advanced Research Center for Nanolithography, or ARCNL. Forged out of a collaboration between four prominent partners in the Netherlands and Germany, ARCNL focuses on the fundamental physics involved in current and future key technologies in nanolithography. And, as with most things nano in Amsterdam, Polman initiated the group’s groundbreaking work. ARCNL was created in response to a brief set by the Dutch semiconductor-equipment manufacturer ASML, which reached out to the scientific community for help in solving one of the fundamental challenges of nanoscience: how to create the tools needed to ensure long-term innovation in the field. Four different organisations bid for the prestigious partnership, and the ARCNL proposal ultimately triumphed. Polman is quick to praise the city of Amsterdam for its support in the process: “Amsterdam has been very welcoming to ARCNL,” he says. “They provided the subsidy to help start the institute. I’d been to City Hall to talk about how to attract ARCNL to Amsterdam, to make sure that it ended up here and not somewhere else. You see the city really wants to help.” Its support of ARCNL isn’t the only way in which Polman believes the municipality has been integral to the continued growth of Amsterdam’s scientific community. “Amsterdam has discovered the science campus,” he proclaims. “Five years ago, this place was out in the fields and nobody knew about it. Now there are 10,000 people here, thanks to the university and the institutes and also to the efforts of the City of Amsterdam.”

Amsterdam’s Science Park, which houses the AMOLF institute where Polman and his team are based, is often cited as a major factor in inspiring the collaboration that drives innovation in Amsterdam’s scientific community. “Science is based on connections between people,” says Polman. “There are more than 130 companies based at Science Park, and we’re all interacting with each other. With the cooperation of the other organisations named here, we are trying to attract new companies to Science Park, and we know that we have something special to offer them.” Whether it’s research taking place within AMOLF, ARCNL or Solardam, there is a palpable confidence enveloping the city’s nanotech community today. And it’s clear that Amsterdam’s collaborative and innovative nature has influenced the cutting-edge nanoscience research carried out here. “In the 16th century we were experts at digging canals in Amsterdam,’ concludes Polman. “Here we are, five centuries later, doing exactly the same. This time the work is just a billion times smaller.”