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Past Winner
2001 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Peter Grütter


McGill University

Dr. Peter Grütter's research goal is as fine-pointed as his high-tech microscopes: "I want to build and operate instruments at the absolute limits given by nature," says the McGill University physicist.

In so doing, he's setting the scientific groundwork for the development of nanotechnologies. It's world-leading research for which Dr. Grütter was recently awarded a 2001 NSERC Steacie Fellowship – one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.

There is currently lots of media buzz about the potential for nanoscale devices in applications from computing to medicine. But, very little is actually known about the behaviour of matter at the tiniest of levels.

"There's a lot of speculation but very little hard evidence," says Dr. Grütter, who grew up in Switzerland, Chile and South Africa.

He and his research team of nine graduate students and three postdoctoral assistants are working to change that. They're measuring the atomic-scale physical characteristics of matter. For example, how does squishing a molecule, as could happen in the making of a nanodevice, change its electrical properties?

A key area of his current research focus, one that he'll continue to pursue as an NSERC Steacie Fellow, is measuring the electron transport properties of individual molecules – an important factor in the potential creation of nanoelectronic devices.

To date, researchers have been severely limited in accurately doing this because they haven't been able to define the nanoscale contact wires that deliver and receive electrons to the intermediary molecule.

"The Achilles heel in nanoelectronics is how to make these atomically defined contact wires," says Dr. Grütter. "It's not obvious at all that the properties of the system are due to the molecule and not a combination of the molecule and the contact leads."

"To solve this problem, Dr. Grütter's Montreal lab has custom built a unique device to measure the individual components of a nanoscale electronic system. Involving a combination of three nanoscale microscopy techniques, the device allows the researchers to atomically view, manipulate and measure the behaviour of the contact leads. Not that it works quickly, or simply. Given the challenges involved – operating at near absolute zero temperature and in an ultra-high vacuum – it can take months to get a single result and, notes Dr. Grütter, can be "a pain in the neck," to operate.

But, for a physicist probing the fundamental properties of matter, each individual result is worth the wait.

"Once everything works, it's so well defined that you get a measurement and you know exactly what it means – there's no room for speculation," says Dr. Grütter.