Gates' invisible revolution

April 28, 2005, vol. 33, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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One right move at the molecular level in Byron Gates' nanoscience lab and the newly appointed Canada Research Chair at SFU could develop a tool, technology or device that revolutionizes healthcare, electronics or energy production.

Gates, a materials chemist, is an expert in navigating a world unseen to the naked eye where molecules at the surface of materials can interact as dramatically as oil and water. “I am developing techniques to selectively control the growth and properties of nanoscale materials by manipulating their surface chemistry,” explains the Canada Research Chair in materials science and technology.

Gates works with structures that are 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of one human hair, or one-millionth of a millimetre.

A former postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and the author of 37 publications in refereed journals, Gates notes that, “Most of today's miniaturized devices rely on micron-scale structures.” But his new $100,000 a year national chair in SFU's chemistry department will allow him to advance nanoscience with a focus on three areas of application.

He is developing a type of biosensor that could help scientists detect and eliminate deadly pathogens more quickly and economically than presently possible. Pathogens of interest include those linked to SARS and mad cow disease. The biosensor would be able to identify simultaneously the presence of different pathogenic agents.

Another experiment involves developing a technology that probes cellular tissue in three dimensions, allowing scientists to monitor cell growth or track cancerous development.

The imaging technique involves synthesizing a new set of optical dyes to image tissue at a greater depth and resolution than currently possible while targeting specific cells.

Gates' third project is the development of photovoltaic devices. These devices will contain synthetic nanoscale materials that produce a voltage from the sun's radiant energy.

Tuning the composition and structure of these nanodevices will determine the efficiency of the energy conversion.

These inventions will firmly secure Gates' footing as a pioneer in nanoscience, but he never loses sight of his focus on fundamental research.

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