Conference focuses on talking small and thinking big

The microscopic control of matter, even individual atoms, is a hot research area that has attracted more than 75 of the world’s leading scientists to York, Feb. 14  to 16, for the Ultracold Nanomatter Conference. Also attending and presenting at the conference will be Nobel Laureate, Klaus von Klitzing, a German physicist who was awarded the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the Integer Quantum Hall Effect.

They will meet at the Black Creek Conference Centre to discuss and share their experiences in creating nanomatter. Nanomatter refers to materials smaller than one micron, or, in other words, particles that measure one-millionth of a metre. These particles, which are smaller than the wavelength of visible light and a hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair, are measured using a unit of measurement known as a nanometre, equivalent to one-billionth of a metre.

Why are such tiny particles important? In a world where demand is increasing for smaller, slimmer and more powerful technology, nanomatter is the new “it” substance because how it reacts is determined by quantum mechanics and its behaviour is very different from conventional physics.

Nanomatter is part of the emerging science of nanotechnology, which has attracted scientists from all disciplines. Biologists, chemists, physicists and engineers are all involved in the study of substances at the atomic and nanoscale. Nanotechnology is the science that deals with anything measuring between 1 and 100 nanometres, larger than the microscale, and smaller than the atomic scale. Scientists are busy experimenting with substances at the nanoscale to learn about their properties. They are interested in how to use their unique properties in different applications. Engineers are investigating how to create and use nano-size wires to create smaller, more powerful microprocessors. Medical researchers are seeking ways to use nanoparticles in medical applications.

Working in the nanoscale offers many challenges for scientists, in particular the way such substances react. If you were to walk toward a glass door, you would bump into it if you did not alter your path. Electrons, however, can pass right through the door without being destroyed through a process called electron tunnelling. This kind of versatility holds true for nanomatter and there is tremendous potential in how nanomatter reacts to manipulation.

“It is important to understand the weird behaviour of substances in the nanoworld if technological innovation is to continue,” says York physics Professor William van Wijngaarden, one of the conference organizers.

Right: William van Wijngaarden

“At such tiny distances, particles act like waves and can be used to make, for example, smaller and faster computers, known as quantum computers,” said van Wijngaarden. “These so called quantum computers may become a reality in the 21st-century, largely due to innovations and better understanding of the properties of nanomatter."

Delegates to the Ultracold Nanomatter Conference will focus their discussions on one of the key problems of nanomatter – the random motion of its particles. “Random motion of particles due to thermal fluctuations is a problem,” explains van Wijngaarden. “Atoms are therefore cooled to temperatures near absolute zero (-273 degrees C). This generates a new form of matter called a Bose Einstein Condensate. Recent innovations in nanotechnology include showing how to create an array of ultracold particles and slowing light to walking speed.”

The conference will also provide a valuable opportunity for graduate students to rub shoulders with leading scientists in nanotechnology. The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics is a co-sponsor of the conference.  

“Hosting this conference shows York’s commitment to cutting edge scientific innovation,” said York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, who is actively expanding the University’s science and engineering research.

For more on the Ultracold Nanomatter Conference, visit the conference Web site at