To the question ‘Where does technology come from?’, The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics answers that “Virtually all of the technology we enjoy today is powered by the four key scientific concepts of quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, special relativity, and general relativity” (https://www.perimeterinstitute.ca/outreach/teachers/class-kits/physics-innovation). To give an example of the sheer breadth of innovations driven by physics, consider this: Physics is driving innovation in food manufacturing (http://www.iopblog.org/physics-is-driving-innovation-in-food-manufacturing/). The Institute of Physics has instituted ‘IOP Business Innovation Awards’, which will give students a good idea of physics’ connections with the world of business (http://www.iop.org/activity/business/innovation/page_53257.html). To extend this point, the American Physics Society says this: “The majority of physics graduates at all degree levels will become scientists and innovators working in the private sector, yet very little of the knowledge they gain while earning their degree intentionally prepares them for these roles. APS joins in on nationwide efforts to promote physics innovation and entrepreneurship (PIE) education”, (https://www.aps.org/programs/education/innovation/index.cfm). We are going to describe some specific areas of innovation, based on which you may further search through to discover more areas.
Physics and the nano
It is clear that the subject of nano technology draws from several disciplines. While it involves physics and chemistry, it also involves “biology, several disciplines of engineering, material science, and medicine. Anywhere molecules and atoms are concerned, nanotechnology can potentially play a role” (http://www.trynano.org/about/it-chemistry-it-physics).
The Royal Society explains that “The nanometre scale is about a billionth of a metre and things this small can behave quite weirdly. These unusual physical and chemical characteristics come about because there is an increase in surface area compared to volume as particles get smaller and also because they are subject to quantum effects. This means they can behave in different ways and do not follow the same laws of physics that larger objects do. For more information about quantum and particle physics see ‘The best things come in small packages’. The idea of nanotechnology first came from the physicist Richard Feynman (born in 1959) who imagined the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica could be written on the head of a pin. Carbon nanotubes – tiny tubes of carbon atoms, which are very strong yet very light – started to be created in the 1950s. It was improvements in microscopy in the 1980s that allowed researchers to see single atoms and then manipulate them on a surface. In 1985 chemists discovered how to create a football shaped molecule from 60 carbon atoms called buckminsterfullerene (also called fullerene, C60 or buckyballs – see ‘Create a buckyball’). (http://invigorate.royalsociety.org/ks5/what-could-nano-do-for-you/why-is-nanotechnology-important.aspx)
The Institute of Physics has this to say (http://www.iop.org/careers/future-with-physics/nanotechnology/page_58446.html).
“This relatively new science has become one of the most exciting and important avenues of employment and research open to physicists. Those looking to work in this area should ideally have a practical approach to problem solving (often using mathematical techniques), be able to reason clearly and communicate complex ideas, and be able to work in a company structure and under budgetary constraints. Companies that may be interested in physics graduates include: International Rectifier, a leading semiconductor manufacturer; Oxonica, a leading company in the development and commercialisation of nanotechnology and is based in Oxford in the UK, Mountain View in California and in Singapore; Hitachi High Technologies, based in Maidenhead, UK, and makes scanning electron microscopes for use in semiconductor applications; and Nanoco, makers of quantum dots and semiconductors and is based at Manchester University”.
The Research School of Physics and Engineering at the Australian National University’s College of Science, conducts “extensive research into the design, growth and fabrication of semiconductor and optical devices on the nanometer scale using techniques ranging from MOCVD growth to ion beam processing. Such devices by virtue of their scale, exploit quantum effects to enhance their performance. A large part of this research program focuses on quantum well lasers and detectors of importance to the telecommunications industry. We also research the nanoscale modification of bulk materials such as nanocrystals within semiconductors induced by ion irradiation. Materials modified in this way can have unusual and technologically useful properties such as light emission at wavelengths incompatible with the bulk material band structure” (https://physics.anu.edu.au/areas/nanotech.php). The University of Sydney specifically focuses on research into quantum physics and nano technology (https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2017/07/25/quantum-physics-and-nanoscience.html).
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of nano will be aware of the impact of physics on medical sciences and applications. The Journal of Medical Physics and Applied Sciences has a detailed article on this topic “Impact of Physics on Medical Sciences and Applications: Lasers and Nanotechnology” (http://medicalphysics.imedpub.com/impact-of-physics-on-medical-sciences-andapplications-lasers-and-nanotechnology.php?aid=8883). The University of Birmigham has a 1994-established Nanoscale Physics Research Laboratory which is engaged in a variety of research and builds links with Industry (http://www.nprl.bham.ac.uk/). At the EU-level, there is the Nanora, (http://www.nanora.eu/), which is an EU-wide association focusing on nano technology.
The University of Southampton offers a “four-year MPhys Physics with Nanotechnology degree will give you a more advanced understanding of nanotechnology and includes key study in quantum devices, nanoscience, light and matter, molecular materials, processing of devices and the molecular basis of life” https://www.phys.soton.ac.uk/programmes/f390-mphys-physics-nanotechnology.
As the University of Auckland defines “Environmental physics is a key area of research. It addresses vital questions about the world’s climate, sustainable energy, and geo‐hazards” (https://www.physics.auckland.ac.nz/en/about/our-research/environmental-physics.html). The Environmental Physics Group at The Institute of Physics defines the subject as “is the application of the principles of physics to problems in the natural environment”, with members drawn from areas as diverse as geomagnetism and agriculture (http://www.iop.org/activity/groups/subject/env/).
A relatively new area again, there is a growing interest in the link between physics and the environment. At ANU, the research is in the areas of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, Atmospheric Physics, with many related topics (https://physics.anu.edu.au/areas/environment.php). Uppsala University has this to say on the subject: “Some of the grand challenges facing humankind are connected to energy and environment. We aim to develop a fundamental understanding of key processes on the atomic level connected to energy conversion and storage, as well as their environmental consequences” (http://www.physics.uu.se/research/molcond/ongoingresearch/energy-and-environment/). Some of its areas of research are Heterogeneous catalysis towards energy storage: Atomic level understanding of chemical bond formation, Photon-to-electron energy conversion in next generation solar cells: Energy alignment and charge transfer dynamics, Li-ion batteries and beyond: Interface characterization for increased understanding and advancement and Atmospheric physics.