NASA’s challenge was to heat a speck of moon dust 100th the diameter of a human hair to 1,000°C and then bring it back down to room temperature in less than a second.

The U.S. space agency, working in conjunction with researchers from Arizona and Ontario as well as the multinational Hitachi, wanted to mimic conditions caused by a meteorite strike on the moon using samples brought to Earth decades ago by Apollo astronauts. Eventually, the data derived from noting changes in the sample could help scientists deduce the age of the moon and perhaps other worlds in future space exploration.

An early attempt to build the minuscule equipment by an American company didn’t meet the challenge, so NASA looked elsewhere. As it turned out, engineers with the Japanese giant that builds electronic imaging microscopes capable of seeing changes to the sample remembered working with scientists and engineers in Alberta’s nascent nanotechnology industry years before. That led to contact with Norcada, a small but innovative high-tech company located in an unassuming business park in south Edmonton. Its team of fewer than 20 engineers, physicists and technologists joined the effort, testing their results with specialized equipment in a dust-free “clean room” at the University of Alberta. It worked.

“I tell people we build time machines and they laugh at it, but in a way, it is true,” Hooman Hosseinkhannazer, Norcada’s vice president of business development, says.

The experiment proved to be a success, and a few papers were published.

“We made the chip and most of us came from the University of Alberta. We are very proud of the fact that we are all engineers who came out of the Alberta system. We tested a number of the chips in the clean room here to make sure it is working well. In a way it shows that there is a return on investment.”

And not only a return for the greater good of science. Although that tiny device has a limited application mainly as a research tool, it is also symbolic of much bigger, forward-thinking efforts by Albertan and Canadian politicians, the University of Alberta and the Alberta business community in the never-ending quest to diversify our provincial economy.

“Truth is, there is an American company that makes a similar product, but they can’t outperform us,” Hooseinkhannazer says. “Being a small company, we don’t own $300 million of equipment. But all of the equipment is available here because of good decisions that were made 20 years ago when the university and government decided to have open facilities and equipment for companies to come and use.”

In an industry dominated by the United States and with extremely tough competition from Asia, Europe and Brazil, Alberta appears to be making its mark in micro and nanotechnology with gross revenues exceeding a conservative estimate of $100 million a year, when only few decades ago that number would have been closer to zero. More than 90 per cent of those revenues come from sales outside of Canada, making the province a net exporter in the field.

Norcada, for example, sells more than 90 per cent of what it produces to other countries, largely by word of mouth, references in scientific papers and exposure at nanotechnology conferences. It does not advertise in print or on TV, yet it has placed itself as an innovator in micro and nanotechnology, developing its own products lines. These include custom chips, as in the NASA project, laser light sources smaller than a grain of salt, which are used in the detection of CO2, greenhouse gases and emissions, as well as the equivalent of what could be described as high-quality slides used in electron and X-ray microscopes, which are essential for DNA sequencing.

Norcada's partners, President Graham McKinnon, Vp of Business Development Hooman Hosseinkhannazer and VP of Research Yuebin Ning.
Photo: Jeff Holubitsky

To get an idea of how small nanotechnology is, consider that electron and X-ray microscopes can detect the spaces between atoms. If the human hair mentioned above is between 50 and 100 microns in diameter, the world of nanotechnology is 1,000 times smaller.

Hosseinkhannazer says that while Norcada is one of the bigger players in Alberta’s nanotechnology sphere, which employs an estimated 300 people, it isn’t alone. There are several others that fill other important niches. Some smaller ones, often with only one or two employees, concentrate on making one product.

“I tell people that Edmonton is now the capital of nano in Canada,” Hosseinkhannazer says. “You may have larger numbers of companies in Toronto or Montreal, but they are not as well organized, and we are way past Calgary, Vancouver and all of the other major cities when it comes to core knowledge and production of nantechnologies.”

One of the biggest and earliest Alberta nanotechnology companies to come out of the U of A campus is Micralyne, with more than 100 employees. It has been regarded as a foundry, meaning that other companies come to it with ideas and designs and it builds them, although it has recently started a research and design team to develop its own products. It produces MEMs, or microelectronic mechanical systems, for the auto industry, cell phones and so on.

Norcada President Graham McKinnon worked with Micralyne before starting Norcada with physicist Yuebin Ning in 2002. He says he wanted to maintain control over everything he built, something Micralyne did not do at the time. His experience with nano and microelectronics, however, started decades before that.

Graham McKinnon in Norcada's Edmonton labNorcada President Graham McKinnon in the company's suburban lab.
Photo: Jeff Holubitsky

McKinnon has watched the industry grow since arriving at the U of A from Saskatchewan at the age of 28 after an earlier career in construction work. (“I started late in life,” he says.)

“It goes back to plans first formulated during the Peter Lougheed era,” he says. “Probably the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.”

At that time, with the province flush with cash, there was a huge push to diversify the economy in order to reduce Alberta’s financial dependence on the oil patch.

“The province set up institutes in a number of different fields to help with this process,” McKinnon says. “The Alberta Microelectronics Centre was one along with the origins of NovAtel and the Alberta Laser Institute.

“It set up these organizations in order to forge off in new directions to expand our technology and diversify the economy.”

Some people today may regard this effort as ill-advised, especially considering NovAtel’s spectacular failure. McKinnon views it differently. He believes the benefits of taking the risks greatly outweighed any losses.

Calgary-based NovAtel, created as part of the province’s economic diversification, was the subject of months of headlines when it was eventually broken up and sold off in the 1990s, costing Alberta taxpayers more than $500 million. Its cell-phone technology was considered among the best in the world, though perhaps ahead of its time. The company has continued to operate, however, and has long been a major player in the field of GPS navigation systems.

“The story of NovAtel is sad, in terms of mismanagement,” he says, “but in its demise we ended up with all of these people in Calgary who knew wireless technology. So, we have a whole network of wireless technologies and wireless products and wireless organizations that really came out of that in their origins at least in an indirect way. So, there is a benefit that comes out of it.”

In 1988, the lanky professional engineer was hired by the not-for-profit Alberta Microelectronics Centre, one of the provincial institutes that had been established on the U of A campus.

“My job was to look after the university students,” he says. “I was the director of the original nanolab called the MAD lab – the materials and devices laboratory.

“So, we started bringing people in. Yuebin was hired a couple of years later after that to help us with some of the commercial projects we started doing.”

The government’s investments in the revolutionary technology quickly began to show some promise.

“As we developed external funding from doing projects for (outside) people, our revenues increased,” he says. “The government at the time was cutting back and at some point, you reached the conclusion that maybe we are better off not taking the government money because then we don’t have the encumbrance of the expectations the government wants. So, we split off.”

The university backed, not-for-profit centre, called the Alberta Microeletronic Centre, privatized in 1998. Its employees worked out an arrangement with the university to buy the centre. It later changed its name to Micralyne. When the company left campus, it took many of the university’s experts and equipment in micro and nanotechnology with it.

Around that time, the federal government started a funding program called the Canada Foundation for Innovation to provide badly needed money for research infrastructure such as buildings and labs. The U of A took advantage of that program to fill the void left by Micralyne and build the Electrical and Computer Engineering Research Facility (ECERF), complete with a 10,000-square-foot clean room laboratory, which is now used for a fee by about 55 companies in developing their products.

“Prior to this point in the late 1990s, there wasn’t this type of funding and it was very difficult for universities to invest in the specialized labs people needed for research in nanotechnology, or today in quantum technology or artificial intelligence, ” says Eric Flaim, director of the university’s nanoFAB, which describes itself as an open access training service centre for academic and industrial research into micro and nano technologies “That is now the basis of nanoFab and is the basis of why a company like Norcada can do what it does to employ the people it has.”

ECERF’s original grant was for $11 million, followed three years later by $30 million in order to build the lab. Since that time, nanoFab has received an additional $100 million of equipment, infrastructure and operational funding. Forty per cent of that money came from Ottawa, 40 per cent from the province and 20 per cent from industry and in-kind contributions from industry and third parties.

“It supports commercial activities, educational activities and research activities of faculty members here at the U of A,” Flaim says. “In 2002, we had this brand-new building with this brand-new clean room facility with brand-new equipment.”

He says small companies like Norcada can only support their own research if they have access to a lab like nanoFAB, with its clean rooms that loosely resemble the sophisticated meth labs in the TV show "Breaking Bad." Technical teams in the rooms wear white protective suits not for their own safety, but to protect the objects being produced. After all, a tiny flake of dandruff can be many times larger than one of the tiny lasers or circuits being built.

By the late ’90s, the federal government decided nanotechnology was going to be the next biggest thing, much like artificial intelligence is regarded today. After looking for a location to build a national centre in the early 2000s, the U of A was chosen because it already had the nanoFab and a core group of researchers in place. In 2006, the 200,000-square-foot, $60-million National Institute for Nanotechnology (known as NINT) was opened. It was a partnership between the federal government’s National Research Council, the province and the University of Alberta. The centre’s high-power electron microscope came from Hitachi.

“Like most national research centres, they are focused on big questions and problems and long-term projects,” Flaim says. “Whereas in the university and in the nanoFAB specifically, we’re more targeting short- to medium-term research projects, prototyping development activities and low volume manufacturing for companies, which is why companies work on the nanoFAB.”

Besides helping companies like Micralyne and Norcada, Flaim says government money has had wide ranging benefits for the university and Edmonton. He lists the growing numbers of researchers and professors in nanotechnology attracted by the facilities and equipment, the ability for the U of A to grant “nanocentric degrees,” a nanotechnology technician program at NAIT, and other commercialization research programs supported by the province.

Flaim recalls that when he started working at nanoFab in 2008, Norcada and other exporting tech companies were suffering through the worst days of the worldwide recession.

“The financial crisis really hit them hard … and now they employ 20 people and are one of our highest revenue paying customers,” he says.

Success breeds success. The fees paid by companies like Norcada help subsidize fees for the academic research at the facility. The growth in the industry has also helped attract many other companies to the area, Flaim says.

“This wouldn’t be possible without the support that has been provided to allow companies like Norcada and Micralyne and others to develop.”

Yuebin Ning, who came to Canada from China to pursue and eventually earn his Ph.D. in physics before working with Micralyne and then Norcada, remembers sharing a beer with fellow scientists at a microtechnology conference in Ottawa in 2000 when talk turned to the establishment of the NRC nanotechnology centre in Edmonton. It had long been a sore point that the NRC did not have facilities here.

“They said ‘You guys already have the knowledge in microtechnology, which is really the foundation for nanotechnology,’” he says. “Our microtechnology applications were already quickly approaching nanotechnology.”

Although some may question public involvement in the private sector, Ning says sometimes it is a necessity. In the early days, nobody really knew how successful Alberta’s nanotechnology community could or would become.

“Government investment is for things that are highly risky,” he says. “It is around when the private sector is unwilling to do something. Somebody must take the risk, so for that reason I think it is the right thing to do. But it is always a challenge to do it and to do it well. We are in a way a spinoff of the Alberta Microelectronics Centre. Without it, there would be no Norcada. We would not be doing what we do today.”