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Ground-breaking research centre celebrates 20 years

Through hard work and team effort, one man's seminal vision twenty years ago became the first interdisciplinary research centre at Aarhus University in 2002: iNANO. Twenty years later, the centre has paved the way for a rapidly developing discipline, and interdisciplinary collaboration that has spread throughout the world.

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Greener aviation fuel, a method to curb the spread of Covid-19 and new electrical nanomaterials. These are just some of the achievements that iNANO at Aarhus University has been able to celebrate over the past two decades. However, these are not the centre’s greatest achievements. With researchers from several disciplines working together to solve major challenges using nanotechnology, iNANO itself was a momentous innovation.

 It was nothing less than a revolutionary vision at the turn of the millennium, and getting the centre established has helped change Danish and international research ever since. Science is developing rapidly, and nanotechnology is now part of most people’s everyday lives. In other words, the centre has placed Denmark among the world’s elite.

Nano: The fourth industrial revolution

Nanotechnology was a hot topic around the turn of the millennium, and both researchers and politicians talked about the possibilities of cultivating this science and designing molecules with new properties, for example in medicines and nanoscale machines. In the US, President Clinton wanted to accelerate research in nanotechnology, and nanotechnology ambitions became increasingly stronger in Europe as well.

"People said that nanoscience could become the fourth industrial revolution. There was a lot of hype about nanotechnology in the early 2000s, and there was great interest in reversing trends, for example from making computer components smaller and smaller towards instead building things from the smallest possible parts from scratch. It was radical and exciting," explains one of the founders of iNANO, Niels Christian Nielsen, who was also the deputy director of the centre from 2002 to 2006 and the center director from 2012 to 2013.

Flemming Besenbacher was the person who really got nanotechnology to Aarhus, and his vision was clear: Aarhus University would house Denmark's first interdisciplinary nanoscience centre. He gathered a team who together worked hard to realise this dream.

"It was an enormous task. We wrote masses of applications. We quickly realised that the large, national grant we had hoped for would never come to fruition, but we had a team and we had the motivation, so we continued our endeavours until we achieved the funding to set up the new iNANO centre," says Niels Christian Nielsen.

Role model for interdisciplinarity

When the centre became a reality, the driving force was nanoscience. Danish researchers began to be able to handle materials and DNA structures at nanoscale, and they succeeded in finding new properties. However, combining research areas and disciplines quickly became much more important. Researchers with backgrounds in physics, chemistry, biology and molecular biology have been affiliated with the centre since the beginning, and this turned out to be an enormous strength.

Today, interdisciplinarity and collaboration to find solutions to society's major challenges are somewhat common in research, but this was a new approach when iNANO was established, and it quickly turned out to benefit the centre. 

"We could see that we could produce important results for society if we had the courage to collaborate on solutions across disciplines. And this approach has proved successful ever since. Right up to addressing present global challenges within climate and water, for example. It was also successful when we recycled the interdisciplinarity concept in all the centres that were later established at the faculty," says Niels Christian Nielsen, who was the dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology from 2013 to 2019.

Yellow bricks improved research at the centre

Despite its success, and both Danish and international interest in the interdisciplinary research centre, it took ten years to gather together the many researchers and grant-recipients physically. The centre only existed online for the first decade, but the Danish National Research Foundation believed that a physical setting would further improve the centre. In 2012, the iNANO building was ready to open, and this cemented iNANO in the Danish research community," says Thomas Vosegaard, who is the acting center director.

"Getting a physical base has meant a lot to iNANO. It has become a gathering point for all the activities that took place over the first ten years, and it has become easier to contact colleagues from other disciplines. So the Danish National Research Foundation was right, and iNANO became even stronger," he explains, and continues:

"Today, we speak the same language, despite different disciplines. We can meet over a challenge and make an interdisciplinary effort, because interdisciplinarity is such a big part of us and our everyday work. It’s something we’re good at, and this means that we can react quickly, as we did during Covid and in relation to the green transition." 

Achieved the impossible

The strong focus on nanoscience and its potentials quickly made it clear that future generations of researchers within the field had to be trained. Besides studying chemistry, physics, biology and molecular biology, which can also be studied at other departments at the university, students at iNANO learn about nanotechnology and how to get from A to B across disciplines. In other words, they learn to work at the intersection between disciplines.

"Back in 2002, many believed that such multidisciplinary training was impossible, but Aarhus has proved them wrong. We developed a degree programme which is a patchwork of disciplines, and we produce very strong graduates. The programme demands a lot from students, but they learn to span several disciplines and to speak a different language. Such employees are attractive to companies today," says Trolle Linderoth, who helped teach the first nanoscience students in 2002 and who has headed the nanoscience degree programme since 2006.

Since 2002, more than 300 students have taken a degree at iNANO, and Trolle Linderoth has followed their careers as far as possible.

“Our graduates can be a link between other disciplines, because they speak all technical languages. They have a strong platform, and this is a strength in the business community, because they provide all-round skills for projects and they are good at communicating across disciplines," he explains, and emphasises:

"Training in nanoscience is an important task. We won’t move forward if new generations can’t take over, and there is plenty of work to be done. Our students are by far our most important contribution to society.”

The world looks towards Aarhus

The pioneering spirit, interdisciplinarity and success have gone beyond Danish borders, and according to the acting center director, it is not uncommon for international researchers and universities to contact iNANO in Aarhus for help to start similar centres.

"A pioneering spirit is in the DNA of iNANO and it has been so since the very beginning. The researchers who dreamed of building iNANO were on to something that didn’t exist elsewhere, and they laid the foundation for new ways of doing research. For twenty years, we have broken down barriers and produced amazing solutions within nanoscience and interdisciplinarity, and there is much from the last two decades we can be proud of," says Thomas Vosegaard. 

The 20-year anniversary will be celebrated on 2 and 3 June at Aarhus University. 

Read more about iNANO and 20 years of nanoscience at Aarhus University.