Big in nano


Much of the research for Quantum Nanoscience will focus on the quantum computer in the next ten years.

The Kavli Institute of Nanoscience Delft celebrated its tenth anniversary on 10 March. In terms of money, the Kavli Foundation’s annual contribution is only approximately one per cent of the budget, but the name is
of inestimable value.

Delft, 17 July 2003

In the summer of 2003, Professor Hans Mooij (quantum transport, Faculty of Applied Sciences) receives a strange e-mail. A certain ‘Kavli Foundation’ claims that its goal is to promote research in nanoscience, astronomy and neuroscience by sponsoring three or four institutes for each field. It also wants to know if TU Delft would be interested in establishing such an institute.

“I had never heard of Kavli,” recalls Mooij. True, he had seen Norwegian cookies with that name while on vacation. But it was unlikely the foundation was connected with those.

Meanwhile, Nigerian spam is everywhere, offering fantastic sums of money in exchange for a small deposit. Mooij is therefore on his guard. A Google search reveals that Fred Kavli is an industrialist from Norway who made a fortune out of supplying sensors for aeronautic, aerospace, automotive and industrial applications. In 2000, Kavli sold his company Kavlico and subsequently dedicated himself to philanthropy. He chose three fundamental scientific fields for his philanthropic work: one concerning the very small (nanoscience), one concerning the very large (cosmology) and one concerning the highly complex (neuroscience). He assembles a management team consisting of university heavyweights to find the best research groups in the world. Eventually they come across the department of Mooij in Delft.

Santa Barbara, 12 December 2003

Mooij and Professor Cees Dekker meet with Kavli and the management of the Kavli Foundation. Kavli himself is exceptionally friendly and soft-spoken, but remains in the background. The conversation is conducted by the members of the Board – all famous names from American universities. They ask Dekker and Mooij about their research, about the support and their goals. Dekker gets the feeling that he is being screened. “It was really a job interview.” Eventually, Kavli speaks. “Do you want to be the director?” he asks Mooij. Mooij answers that he does.

Delft city hall, 5 February 2004

Mysterious decisionmaking turns out to be typical of the Kavli Foundation. During a reception of the Kavli manage-
ment board in the Delft city hall, Kavli says something that Mooij can only interpret as an admission that TU Delft has been selected. Even so, he decides to ask for confirmation. The Kavli Foundation will deposit 7.5 million dollars in five annual instalments as capital, with the institute receiving the interest. Kavli, suddenly a businessman, wants to know what the Executive Board will offer in return. The board decides to counter the offer and promises a comparable amount. The documents are signed in New York on 10 March 2004. The sister institutes of Cornell University and CalTech also sign. “The financial contribution is not what is most important,” says the current director, Dekker. The contribution is only two to three hundred thousand euros a year in interest earnings – roughly one per cent of the departmental budget. “What really matters is that they designated us, together with CalTech and Cornell, as the top 3 in nanoscience, after a worldwide search. That provides us with considerable prestige. We were later joined by Harvard and Berkeley. Five leading institutes: ours and four located in the US. We are very proud of that.”

Ilulissat, Greenland, 11-15 June 2007

Seventeen renowned scientists take part in the Kavli Futures Symposium on bionanotechnology. Dekker is on the list, which also includes Stephen Chu (1997 Nobel Prize laureate and former Secretary of Energy under President Obama) and Freeman Dyson (legendary physicist from Princeton). This is one of those events that could never have been organised from Delft, but which the Kavli Foundation is able to organise. Dekker organised the symposium with Paul McEuen (Cornell University) in order to bring together a group of great minds and give them the chance to think about the distant future of nanotechnology and biology, and about the fusion of biology and nanotechnology into artificial cyborg cells. Philip Ball, editor of the journal Nature, reports on the symposium.

In their final report, the researchers state that nanotechnology is now mainly being used to study living cells. However, nanotechnology might eventually play a role within cells. A literal fusion of biology and nanotechnology will occur. ‘In fifty years, synthetic biology will be just as widespread as electronics is now,’ the final document states. ‘And just as with electronics, the impact of this development cannot be predicted. Nevertheless, the decisions we make today will have significant consequences for the future.’

Ayers Rock, Zoetermeer, 16 September 2010

Mooij hangs from a rope and descends majestically along the climbing wall. Dozens of employees of the Kavli Institute see a small orange flag sticking out of his trouser pocket. Dekker climbs up from below. Somewhere below the middle point, he encounters Mooij. Mooij takes the little flag out of his pocket and hands it to Dekker. The 68-year old emeritus has passed the baton and Dekker is now the new director of the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience Delft. Since 2010, the institute has consisted of two departments: Quantum Nanoscience and Bionanoscience. The Delft institute is the first one to receive a second grant (of five million dollars) from the Kavli Foundation, mainly due to the development of bionanoscience. The little orange flag now has a place in Dekker’s bookcase.

Boston, 28 February 2012

Professor Leo Kouwenhoven has news for the congress of the American Physical Society. It has been exactly two years since he decided that Majoranas were an interesting object of study. Due to persistent rumours, the room is crowded.

Kouwenhoven presents the measurement results of the previous month, which show a remarkably stable peak in the conductance. “Have we seen Majorana fermions?” he asks at the conclusion of his presentation. “I’d say it’s a cautious yes.”

Nature immediately writes ‘Quest for quirky quantum particles may have struck gold’, which leads to Kouwenhoven and Majoranas becoming international news. On 23 March 2012, the publication reaches Science, which immediately has the piece reviewed. On 12 April 2012, the following article is published: ‘Signatures of Majorana Fermions in Hybrid Superconductor Semiconductor Nanowire Devices.’

Delft, 6 February 2014

Ten years ago, we presented ourselves as an institute for nanoscience, because we believed that nanotechnology was not a hype, but rather the fundamental scale on which matter is arranged, from quantum interactions to the building blocks of living matter”, says Dekker. Much of the research for Quantum Nanoscience will focus on the quantum computer in the next ten years. Gaining an understanding of cell molecules is essential in Bionanoscience. I even have ideas about creating a living cell or parts of one myself. When Richard Feyman died, he left a quote on his blackboard: ‘What I cannot create, I do not understand.’ And he was right; the best way to truly understand a living cell is by creating one.”

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