Okanagan-born nanoscientist thinking small in a big way

For years, Penticton-born nanoscientist Nigel Clarke has explored the practical use of structures invisible to the naked eye. These photographs, taken by Clarke, are from his time spent working with the California Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Nigel Clarke)
Born and raised in Penticton, the now 27-year-old Senior Research Engineer is working to develop game-changing technology which could affect many things. (Photos courtesy of Nigel Clarke)
To start the creation of these microscopic structures, Clarke covers a surface with a light-sensitive material, Photoresist, which reacts when it comes into contact with light. By moving lasers around in 3D space, he can draw microscopic structures one line at a time out of “thin air”. (Photos courtesy of Nigel Clarke)
By designing these microscopic structures, scientists can observe how certain materials behave. This allows them to create structures with unique properties, not normally seen in larger materials. (Photos courtesy of Nigel Clarke)
In future, this could result in the creation of extremely strong structures which are also very lightweight. One use already implemented is the creation of artificial bone. (Photos courtesy of Nigel Clarke)
Penticton-born nanoscientist, Nigel Clarke. (Submitted)

Building a structure out of toothpicks and glue takes creativity, patience and careful planning. But imagine trying to build a similar structure which height is the thickness of a piece of paper. The beams and supports, a 50th the thickness. Sounds impossible, right?

Although he can’t see them with his naked eye, nanoscientist and Penticton native Nigel Clarke has been building these microscopic structure, as well as other creations, for years. For nanoscientists, thinking small in a big way is key.

Based out of Mountain View, California, Clarke works to explore new product ideas with Samsung’s Thing Tank Team. His day-to-day is spent brainstorming and building new creations; from new TV displays to virtual reality, and even robot arms that cook in your kitchen.

Born and raised in Penticton, the now 27-year-old Senior Research Engineer is working to develop game-changing technology which could affect many things.

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[Nanoscientist and research engineer, Nigel Clarke. Supplied]

“I always liked inventing things, so I wanted to be on the bleeding edge of something,” said Clarke. “So when I first about nanotechnology, I was immediately attracted to it. Because it seemed like such a new field, there were so many opportunities to create new things.”

After graduating from Penticton Secondary School in 2010 and the University of Waterloo for Nanotechnology Engineering in 2015, Clarke went on to receive his masters in Mechanical Engineering and Design Methodology from Stanford University in 2018. His masters was based on the most efficient way of testing and learning from products in order to figure out what should be produced.

Throughout his education he explored nanofabrication and the creation of objects so small, their structure cannot be fully appreciated with light-based microscopes.

By designing these microscopic structures, scientists can observe how certain materials behave. This allows them to create structures with unique properties, not normally seen in larger materials.

Clarke has previously worked with a group, led by California Institute of Technology professor Julia Greer, to develop this technology and turn it into something practical.

In addition to these microscopic structures, Clarke has also researched how light behaves differently at the nanoscale, which helped in the development health sensors. He also worked on the development of thin flexible electronics, used in contact lenses.

Imagine shining light through a microscope; at a certain point the ray of light is so concentrated that it has the ability to burn. At the very centre of this hourglass shape, the light is the brightest.

To start the creation of these microscopic structures, Clarke covers a surface with a light-sensitive material, Photoresist, which reacts when it comes into contact with light. When exposed to light, the Photoresist then changes from appearing like a liquid, to appearing like a solid. In other words areas that are exposed to the bright light crosslink and become a hard material, eventually forming a structure.

By moving lasers around in 3D space, they can draw microscopic structures one line at a time out of “thin air”.

“The main thing this group was trying to do was look at these unique properties that you only get at the nano scale, pretty much a strength improvement in this normally brittle material and say; are there ways that we can bring that type of property to larger materials that we use every day,” said Clarke.

In future, this could result in the creation of extremely strong structures which are also very lightweight. One use already implemented is the creation of artificial bone.

To see Clarke’s photos up close, visit the St. Germain café downtown Penticton where they are currently on display. He credited his mother for allowing him to view his photographs as art, and showcase them to the world.

READ MORE: Morning Start: Did you know there is a liquid you can breathe like air?

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