The man who gave nano to the people

A decade ago, the opening of the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO) received very little media coverage. Today, journalists come running the moment the word ‘nano’ is mentioned. Professor Flemming Besenbacher, the uncompromising director of the centre, turned an infant technology into a mainstream Danish research adventure. And now the pioneer is letting go of his life’s work.

2012.02.02 | Gunver Lystbæk Vestergård

With an extremely proactive communication strategy, Professor Besenbacher has made the Danish population very aware of nanotechnology. It could well be due to him that an opinion poll taken in 2005 shows that the Danes have the most positive view on nanotechnology of all Europeans. Photo: Roar Paaske

The Aarhus scanning tunnel microscope (STM) built in 1987 by physicists Flemming Besenbacher and Ivan Steensgaard along with engineer Erik Lægsgaard. The microscope utilises a quantum mechanical tunnel current to scan an atomic surface. Aarhus University now has more than ten STMs and is the world leader in this technology. Photo: Roar Paaske

Professor Besenbacher is saying a nostalgic farewell to iNANO six months before the major move into the 10,000-square-metre iNANO House near the barracks. He is seen here cutting the first sod on 22 August 2007. Photo: Lars Kruse

Photo: Roar Paaske

Photo: Roar Paaske

In 2002, Professor Besenbacher said that only a few Danes knew about nanotechnology, but that this would change in a decade – and he was right.

His next vision is:

“By 2025, nanotechnology will have an enormous impact on our daily lives. We will possibly see offshore wind turbines that are half as heavy, but twice as powerful, and with self-cleaning blades. Perhaps the roofs of every house in Denmark will be covered by inexpensive solar cells. And intensive care units may be equipped with nanosensors that can evaluate the patient’s condition at the bedside without taking blood tests,” says Professor Besenbacher enthusiastically and without hesitation.

He is overflowing with nano dreams and, in spite of internal resistance and a stress alarm, he has turned his dreams into a world-class interdisciplinary centre.

Eyes on atoms in Aarhus

Before delving into the magic nano years of the early 2000s, we should go back to the USA about 1959, when the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman said in a legendary speech that the science of the future would take place ‘at the bottom’ of the atomic world, where there is plenty of room. He illustrated this by imagining the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica written on the head of a pin. This led to a fair amount of secret sniggering – as much as one can snigger at an icon such as Feynman.

By the 1980s, the laughter had died down. Two IBM researchers invented the scanning tunnel microscope (STM), which could image atoms for the first time in the history of the world, thus enabling physicists to move these small building blocks around. A new technology had been born using the nanometre (a billionth of a metre) as a unit of measure.

It was this pioneer spirit that Professor Besenbacher was consumed with. As part of a three-man group, the young associate professor built an STM in the basement under the Department of Physics and Astronomy – the Aarhus STM. This impressive instrument with a single atom as the point of a needle and a vacuum corresponding to outer space was completed in 1987 – but without causing a stir in Denmark. 

Sceptical heads of departments

Thirteen years later, political goodwill from the other side of the Atlantic was to help the Aarhus researcher. In 2000, President Bill Clinton jump-started the American National Nanotechnology Initiative with an enormous budget of USD 495 million (approximately DKK 2 billion). The new technology was finally dawning.

Professor Besenbacher exploited the political momentum and aired the idea of launching the world’s first BSc and MSc degree programmes in nanoscience at Aarhus University. It should be an interdisciplinary study programme, where the students would be lectured in molecular biology, chemistry and physics, while learning to understand, design, produce and control things on the nanoscale.

“The future of science is interdisciplinary,” was how the argument sounded.

At the same time, the nano visions seeped out to the public with Professor Besenbacher as the driving force. Nanotechnology was proclaimed to be the next industrial revolution with cancer-curing medicine, self-cleaning surfaces, superfast computers and smart materials for energy storage. “There’s been an outbreak of ‘nanomania’,” wrote science journalist Lone Frank at the time.

However, Professor Besenbacher experienced resistance from within.

“I thought this was the right thing to do, and I wasn’t going to let myself be held back by the fact that some heads of departments thought it was a bad idea. That’s the way I am. When I get an idea I believe in, not even wild horses can hold me back.”

And they certainly could not – Professor Besenbacher went straight to the dean without involving the departments.

“Once I’d gained his acceptance, I spent a couple of weekends writing a letter to the Ministry of Education and, three months later, we were granted permission as the first place in the world to offer a completely new interdisciplinary nanoscience degree programme,” says Professor Besenbacher. He opened the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO) on 28 January 2002 and the first BSc students were admitted six months later.

Triangular particles are made hexagonal

The iNANO Centre simultaneously became a research centre and very soon started churning out scientific results. The centre currently accounts for about nine per cent of all of Aarhus University’s publications. Professor Besenbacher’s proudest achievement is the work on desulphurisation catalysts in collaboration with the Danish catalyst and technology company Haldor Topsoe.

The nano researchers used the STM to study molybdenum disulphide (MoS2), a material that can remove sulphur from crude oil. They saw that the particles were triangular and were found in the corners where the sulphur was trapped. By using the element cobalt, they were able to make the particles hexagonal and thereby more efficient as catalysts. This collaboration was launched prior to the opening of iNANO, but has continued ever since. From 2003 to 2005, Haldor Topsoe’s sales of catalysts increased by seventy per cent.

“Today, Haldor Topsoe has a product they call BRIM catalysts, which were directly inspired by our STM images.”

BRIM refers to a special binding along the edge of the MoS2 particles. The nanoscientists discovered this and it has proved to be crucial for improving desulphurisation.

“This was a benchmark for me, and it shows how our basic research published in leading international journals such as Nature Nanotechnology can become useful technology for the benefit of industry and the Danish community. It’s what I call an outstanding example of scientific social responsibility (SSR).”

DNA origami

Another breakthrough that Professor Besenbacher highlights is the development of the nano-box built of DNA strands.

“This was voted the best scientific breakthrough of the year in 2009. Within iNANO itself, it’s a prime example of a result that couldn’t have been achieved without collaboration between chemists, molecular biologists and physicists. One plus one plus one equals more than three. This sums up precisely my entire vision with iNANO.”

A third strong subject area is the work with drug delivery, in other words medicine that is ‘smuggled’ past the immune system into the diseased cells. The iNANO Centre is among the world leaders in using siRNA molecules packed in sugar – from fish waste – to ‘turn off’ a large number of diseases in cells. It is predicted that it will be possible to use these small packets of sugar in future for treating cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. In fact, it has the potential to become a kind of universal medicine. 

What nano can learn from gene splicing

Professor Besenbacher’s proactive popularisation of nanotechnology is completely deliberate. He wants to avoid falling into the same trap as researchers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“The apples you buy in the supermarket have lots of added chemicals to make them last three to four weeks with shiny, unblemished skins. But I’d rather take a bite of one that’s processed for a better shelf life. Unfortunately, the public lost confidence in GMOs and gene splicing. Why’s that? Well, in my opinion, it’s because researchers kept to the universities and didn’t come out to local village halls. As scientists, we have a duty to relay our information to the man in the street. That’s why I’d like to be a role model. I tell people that I think nanotechnology can help solve some of the world’s major challenges, but there are also some nanotoxicological dangers we need to be aware of,” says Professor Besenbacher.

The latter is the reason that iNANO does not work with carbon nanotubes, because these have been shown to have asbestos-like properties. 

Letters from cancer patients

The hype can get to be too much and, right from the start of the boom in nanotechnology, Professor Besenbacher has warned against claims that nanotechnology is the world’s saviour and will be able to cure cancer in a few years, for example.

His warning was reinforced after a somewhat enthusiastically optimistic article was published by iNANO’s own nano knowledge bank – a knowledge transfer site for upper secondary school pupils written by PhD students.

“In an article on drug delivery, we’d written something about soon being able to cure cancer. One day I got a letter from two terminally ill women afflicted by cancer, and they wanted to meet me because their doctors had given up on them. This was a wake-up call. We changed the article on the spot,” says Professor Besenbacher. 

Sixty-hour working week for PhD students

It requires a special effort to get results published in Science and Nature. Professor Besenbacher emphasises that iNANO is an elite centre, and he is not afraid to make demands on his staff and students. He expects a PhD student to work at least sixty hours a week.

“I sometimes feel that Danish PhD students regard themselves a bit like wage earners. Someone who finishes work at 16.00 and considers the weekends to be sacred. But how to you think elite sports people and the top teams get to be the best in the world? I can assure you that they also trained in the evenings and on Saturdays and Sundays,” says Professor Besenbacher.

That is why no fuss is made when students complain about the amount of work.

“Sometimes when young people come to me and say that they’re ‘oh so stressed’, I ask them: ‘Are you really stressed or are you just busy?’ Because that’s something completely different.” 

Stress alarm

And he knows the difference. Just before Christmas 2005, he was dealing will 800 applications in addition to his work as a member of the Carlsberg Foundation and director of iNANO. One evening while he was writing Christmas cards, he was suddenly unable to distinguish the letters in front of him. He called his wife, who took him home and he stayed there for a fortnight.

“I thought I could walk on water. Of course, I could just spend an extra couple of hours at the weekend and in the evening, but I never really relaxed, and I was about to go under,” says Professor Besenbacher.

He therefore takes the warning signs seriously and detests comments that admitting to stress is a sign of weakness. He steps in promptly if an employee or student shows signs of flagging.

“I send them off to the doctor straightaway, and possibly to a psychologist a bit later,” he says. 

Farewell Besenbacher

On 1 February 2012, Mr Nano is saying farewell as director of the now world-famous centre, and is taking up his position as chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation instead. In 2007, the Danish journal Ingeniøren selected him as Denmark’s most influential researcher, and his personal dominance is precisely one of the reasons he is stopping now.

“I guess my management style has been a bit top down. I’ve really filled a lot, meant a great deal, and taken on a load of tasks, so it’s probably good for the organisation to get another structure, where a number of people share the burden,” says the great man, who has spent thirty years of his life showing the Danes that there really is plenty of room at the bottom.

The new director of iNANO is Professor Niels Chr. Nielsen. The tenth anniversary of iNANO and the change of management will be officially celebrated with a reception on 6 February 2012. Read more at www.inano.au.dk.


Flemming Besenbacher

  • Born 4 October 1952, married with two children
  • Professor of Physics 1996, Director of iNANO 2002–2012
  • Chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation 2012, but to continue as part-time professor at iNANO
  • Most likely to take over the position as Chairman of Carlsberg A/S at the AGM on 22 March 2012
  • Has published more than 500 scientific articles – 20 in Science and Nature
  • Honorary doctor at nine Chinese universities and the first Danish recipient of an Einstein Professorship and an Award for International Scientific Cooperation at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) in Beijing
  • Recipient of a considerable number of other awards, including the NKT Prize, the Villum Kann Rasmussen Annual Award for Technical and Scientific Research, the Rigmor and Carl Holst-Knudsen Award for Scientific Research, and the Cross of the Order of Chivalry in 2007
  • Selected as Denmark’s most influential researcher by Ingeniøren in 2007 

iNANO Centre

  • Established on 28 January 2002 as the world’s first nanoscience education centre
  • Currently has 60 professors and associate professors, 70 postdoctoral scholars, 160 PhD students, and an annual intake of approximately 40 new BSc students
  • Responsible for nine per cent of Aarhus University’s scientific publications 

Nanoscience

The word ‘nano’ comes from Greek and means dwarf. Nanoscience/nanotechnology is concerned with understanding, designing, producing and controlling materials and objects on the nanoscale, i.e. from 0.1 to 100 nanometres (10-9 of a metre). A DNA strand is approximately 2 nm wide, while a hydrogen atom is a about 0.12 nm in diameter.

UNIvers, People, Research, Science and Technology, Frontpage, Staff