From the Edge of the Universe
Professor Ejazul Huq --his work has been on the cutting edge of scientific discovery.
Professor Ejazul Huq has been a shining light in the rather empty space of Bangladeshi scientists. For years his work has been on the cutting edge of scientific discovery, whether it be the development of the words smallest ion trap spectrometer or the application of micro and nano sciences. For more than a quarter of a century he has immersed himself in his research and subsequently has a lot to show for it. He recently was appointed a council fellow at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and is also on the editorial boards of three major international publications. As far as his professional work goes he is second to none and has given Bangladesh an international face in the world of science. As intellectually imposing as he may be his soft-spoken demeanour and disarming personality speak nothing of the scientific genius known around the world. This week he gives the Star Weekend Magazine an exclusive interview and insight into his world of science and technology, which takes us from Dhaka to Cambridge via a comet on the edge of the universe.
You have been recently appointed a Council Fellow at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and that too the first Asian to receive such a prestigious position. How did it happen what was the process involved?
The Council Fellow at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) is considered a distinguished position and very few of the 2200 scientists and engineers at RAL are appointed to this position. I also happen to be the first Asian to receive this honour. This is an individual merit appointment and for eligibility a scientist must have very significant contributions in his or her field of research and a strong international profile. The appointment is made following the recommendation of a high level UK national selection board comprising several Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) an external expert from abroad, in my case, from a German university, and a government observer.
What sort of work does RAL do?
The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, named after two famous scientists Lord Rutherford, father of nuclear physics who pioneered the orbital theory of atom and Sir Edward Appleton an atmospheric physicist, is located in Oxfordshire in the UK. The laboratory is the major part of UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council one of Europe's largest multidisciplinary research organisations. The Council operates world-class large scale research facilities and also provides strategic advice to the UK government. It also conducts and manages international research projects in support of a broad cross section of UK research community. RAL is involved with basic scientific research in the areas of high energy physics, x-ray crystallography, neutron science, fusion studies, space science and nanoscience and technology. The laboratory was the first in the world to develop a synchrotron radiation source, a neutron spallation source and world's most powerful pulsed laser source to conduct fundamental studies on matter. RAL has the largest space research facility in Europe and interacts regularly with the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA in the US.
I conduct my research in nanoscience and technology at RAL's Central Microstructure Facility.
You are considered an international authority in the area of field emission of electrons would you care to explain your work in that area to a layman and how is it used or effects us in our day to day life?
For many applications there is a need to generate electrons. For instance a beam of electrons is used to define the ultra small features that are present in an integrated circuit (IC) the silicon chip. A stream of electrons focused to spot is used to examine naturally occurring or man-made structures which are of the order of a billionth of a metre (nano metre) or even less. A future major application of field emission will be flat panel displays which will have brightness much higher than what is currently available in liquid crystal based and plasma displays.
Field emission is a process for extracting electrons from the surface of a metal or a semiconductor (partially conducting material like silicon containing some intentionally introduced impurities). Field emission is based on quantum tunnelling where electrons residing on the other region of an atom, is pulled out by the application of a high voltage (field). If the surface where the field is applied is flat, a large field is required. However, if the surface contains sharp points then the field required can be substantially reduced, which is a great advantage. In addition to the sharp points, field emission is also dependent on the properties of the material which is used. Advantages of field emission include dramatically higher efficiency, less scatter of emitted electrons and faster switching times.
I have been investing different materials (silicon, diamond, etc) and have fabricated highly ordered ultra sharp points (nanometer radius points) on the surfaces and micro electrodes using advanced techniques and examining their field emission properties.
Your work in field emission led to the development of world's smallest ion trap mass spectrometer which was deployed in the Rosetta Mission. Could you explain the Rosetta Mission and your contribution?
Astronomers have estimated that there is 100,000 times more water locked up in comets compared to the amount of water found on our planet. There is a hypothesis suggesting that oceans and seas were created by comets crashing onto earth. In other words it is suggested that comets are responsible for the 'origin of life' on earth. Terrestrial water has characteristic oxygen isotopes 16O and 17O (oxygen having same number of protons but different number of neutrons). If same isotopes are found in comet water, it would prove the hypothesis.
The Rosetta Mission European Space Agency's most challenging mission was launched in 2004 to test the hypothesis on a comet which is 465 million miles away from our planet. Because of the distance involved, it will take 10 years for the Mission to land on the comet.
The instrument on the mission will dig out a small piece of the comet ice, heat it up in a small vessel and the vaporised gas containing oxygen will be introduced into a device called a spectrometer which will convert the gas into charged particles (ions) and analyse it using a special detector. The spectrometer will be able to reveal whether 16O and 17O isotopes are present in the vaporised comet water. The spectrometer is at the heart of the Rosetta Mission.
Using field emission technique (to ionise the comet gas) I have designed a miniature spectrometer (world's smallest) which consumes very little power - meeting the stringent requirements of the mission.
You have received two international awards and have chaired a major field emission conference, could you tell us about it?
I have been investigating the field emission phenomenon and its application for some years. The awards I received were for best research papers at two international conferences: field emission characteristics of ultra sharp silicon emitters in 1998 and diamond based field emitters in 2000. In 2004 at MIT USA I was nominated to the international steering committee of the International Vacuum Nanoelectronics Conference (dedicated to field emission science and technology) and in 2005 I chaired this conference, held at Oxford University. The conference was attended by over 200 eminent scientists across the world, including noble laureate Sir Harry Kroto.
What other research are you involved with?
At the RAL I direct a large portfolio of research activities. I have been involved with micro and nano science and technology for the past 22 years beginning at Cambridge University in 1984. Micro refers to a dimension which is a millionth of a meter and nano is a billionth of a meter. To put it in perspective, the width of a human hair is in the region of 100 micrometers, so we are talking about structures which are between one hundredth to one hundred thousandth of the width of a human hair. At such low dimensions one can see quantum effects which can be exploited to create ultra fast quantum computers, for instance. One of my research teams is investigating 'single electron' memory device based on the principle of 'Coloumb blockade' for quantum computation, in collaboration with Cambridge University.
Whilst a number of my research programmes are in the physical sciences area, more recently my interests are focused on the application of nanotechnology in life sciences, particularly post-genomic proteomics. Currently together with scientists at Cambridge and Oxford University and the UK Medical Research Council one of my research teams is developing tiny sensors (much smaller than a fine grain of salt) each of which will detect a protein and provide information on its behaviour and its interactions with other proteins in a cell at any given time. This will allow gaining intimate insights into the molecular basis of life in a cell. The ultimate objective is to produce a mobile phone like device to detect cancer and other diseases. I am also looking at the use of nanosensors in stem cell research.
There are many talented Bangladeshi scientists working outside the country, why is it that they do not pursue their work in Bangladesh?
Undoubtedly there are many talented Bangladeshi scientists working abroad. I believe the problems of working in Bangladesh are manifold. Firstly, at the policy level, we do not have a correct appreciation for the need to do serious scientific research. Secondly, in any given field you require the presence of a critical mass playing a proactive role in research and this is missing in Bangladesh at the moment. Thirdly, there is the cost issue, as considerably large financial investments are necessary to conduct serious scientific research. Of course these are not mutually exclusive factors.
Is there any scope for serious scientific research to be carried out here? If not then how the problem can be remedied?
With a fairly significant number of talented graduates, post-graduates and academic staff there is certainly scope for scientific research. However, it is important to identify what type of research should be pursued. There will be limited value in 'blue sky' research and compared to what is happening elsewhere in the world this will tantamount to a 'catching up' exercise rather than advancing science. I am not ruling out basic scientific research but the emphasis should be on applied research for social and economic benefits.
Nano science and technology for instance a multidisciplinary activity, is a rapidly growing field which is not just exciting in terms of the 'revolutionary' ideas that is proposes with huge potential impact in health, environment and a wide multitude of sectors but it also offers very significant opportunities for social as well as the economic development of a country. And importantly not all aspects of nanotechnology involve large capital investments.
Like many developing countries I think it is the right time for Bangladesh to engage in nanotechnology research and development activities in areas, appropriate to its own needs. If successful the developed technologies could have markets in other countries.
There are opportunities in the European Commission for developing countries to participate in collaborative research with European member states. Similar schemes are available in the USA and other countries. Personally I am inclined to see Bangladesh participate effectively in nanotechnology R&D. I would be keen to develop research skill in this area in Bangladesh through collaboration with European agencies with which I work and to this end I have had a series of discussions with a number of senior academics in the country recently.
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