Air quality monitoring, analysis of microbes or new technologies for ultrasonic imaging: micro and nanotechnology is used in many fields. But how can we integrate this kind of technology into tiny systems to meet the challenges of tomorrow? That is the mission of LIMNI, the newest KU Leuven Institute.
The KU Leuven Institute for Integration of Micro- and Nanoscale Technologies (LIMNI) brings together researchers from different disciplines who work on very small length scales, explains founder Michael Kraft of the Department of Electrical Engineering (ESAT). “To give you an idea: if you roll a hair between two fingers, you have a diameter of between 50 and 100 micrometers. If you work on a nanoscale, you have to divide that number by a factor of more than a thousand, because a nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter. ”
KU Leuven has many researchers who work on this scale and in various disciplines, from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, materials science and bio-engineering sciences to physics, chemistry and medical sciences. Michael Kraft: “Many of these researchers are at the top of their field, but if we are to meet the challenges of tomorrow, we must share and integrate our knowledge.”
The KU Leuven Institute will focus on the integration of micro- and nano-scale technology in larger systems. An example of this is the use of porous, three-dimensional structures known as organometallic lattices (MOF), which act like a sponge for specific molecules in the air. This property makes them very useful for air quality monitoring. “Just think of the ‘electronic nose’ for pesticides and nerve gas that my colleague Rob Ameloot developed. If we combine his expertise with my work on microbalances, measuring added or removed mass, we can monitor air quality even more accurately in the future. ”
Micro- and nanoscale technology also has potential medical applications. “That is of course not my expertise; i am an electrical engineer. But we could try to combine microbalances and antibody research to measure virus concentrations, capture and analyze microbes with microfluidic chips, or use miniaturized ultrasound technology to create new and less expensive ultrasound imaging methods. The possibilities are endless.”
One more way to go
Several members of LIMNI already worked together across disciplinary boundaries before it became a KU Leuven Institute. However, the recognition creates new opportunities, says Michael Kraft. “Five years ago, KU Leuven opened the Leuven NanoCentre, so we already have labs where researchers can work together. Our building is a big black box that we now have to give a ‘face’. We want to become a place where researchers can come together and work systematically and where we can invite renowned speakers. ”
“If you compare us with similar institutes in Europe and elsewhere, you see that KU Leuven still has a way to go in this domain, despite the fact that we already have the expertise and infrastructure. As the KU Leuven Institute, we gain the visibility needed to set up new collaborations and attract talented new researchers. We will also be able to expand our collaboration with KU Leuven partners such as Imec, NERF, VITO, Flanders Make and VIB. ”