IBM, ETH Zurich to build joint nanotech research lab

The Swiss university and chipmaker's joint $90m investment marks a major move forward for industry and academic collaboration

IBM Research and Swiss university ETH Zurich have announced the Nanoscale Exploratory Technology Laboratory, a joint $90m (£46m) investment dedicated to nanotechnology research.

The public-private partnership deal, announced on Wednesday, is the first of its size and complexity in Switzerland. The lab will be built by IBM, with ETH paying for half the equipment and committing to renting space for 10 years.

With nearly 1,000 square metres of clean-room laboratories, the Nanoscale Exploratory Technology Laboratory (NETL) will be built on IBM's Zurich campus and is due to be complete by spring 2011. It will use geothermal energy for heating and photovoltaics for power.

Entire countries are investing to compete in nanotechnology, said John Kelly, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, at the launch of NETL in Zurich today. "We view this investment as the bridge to the next 15 years. Nanotechnology will create the electronic components for future computers, be at the heart of many medical devices, and have first-order impacts on energy and the environment."

Kelly added that the announcement was important for Europe and Switzerland in particular. "Switzerland is, if not at the top, then among the top players in nanotechnology internationally," he said.

Peter Chen, vice president of research at ETH Zurich, said: "The negotiations were complicated, unprecedented and uncharted territory. The non-exclusive, perpetual, free right to use the research is granted to each side in joint projects. Freedom to practice is the keystone of this deal. We welcome collaboration with other private companies, especially SMEs. The core of the intellectual-property politics in this collaboration is the realisation that the results of our work won't be a direct product."

The research centre will have 400 metres of shared clean-room space, plus two exclusive areas, of around 250 square metres apiece, assigned to each partner.

The university said it has been surprised by the increase in demand for nanotechnology research resources. "We designed our first clean rooms for a 10-year life, yet after five they're already full," said Chen. "We never expected life science to be involved, but biologists are now queuing to use the facilities."

With 400 projects, 400 researchers and 43 research groups over nine departments, ETH Zurich claims to be a world leader in basic nanotechnology research.