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Swansea University is to take delivery of the UK's most versatile electron microscope.
Scientists will be able to magnify objects 800,000 times to devise new treatments for cancer and other life-changing technologies.
The Welsh Assembly Government's Academic Expertise for Business (A4B) programme is providing £267,700 in funding for the microscope which will operate at extremely low temperatures and allow new glimpses of an unseen world.
Experts believe that within five years it is likely that anti-cancer treatments will be developed which will target harmful cells with unprecedented precision and need radically smaller amounts of drugs.
It will also allow companies to pursue research in fields as diverse as solar technology and steel processing and enable breakthroughs in sectors including cosmetics and communications.
Dr Thierry Maffeis, a lecturer at Swansea's Multidisciplinary Nano-technology Centre (MNC), described the experience of working at this level of magnification. He said: "It's amazing. It's just another world.
"The most likely impact on our everyday life is going to be in the healthcare industry.... It's going to have a massive impact on relieving pressure on the NHS."
He does not anticipate the imminent creation of miniature robots or ‘nanobots.'
"The laws of physics aren't the same at the nanoscale. You can't just shrink things down and make them smaller. It's just impossible to make a nanoscale robot."
The chances of the military successfully using nanotechnology to create miniature spying devices were ‘a bit science fiction'. But he does expect the presence of a world-class microscope in Swansea to raise the university's international profile.
"It will probably be a plus for attracting top-calibre researchers. There's a few appointments being made already," he added.
Colleague Dr Owen Guy added: "Access to world class facilities is critical to the success of any modern engineering department. The MNC has a superb range of surface science and device fabrication tools but there is a glaring absence of a scanning electron microscope with truly nanoscale imaging capabilities."
Deputy First Minister for Wales, Ieuan Wyn Jones, said it would provide new avenues of collaborative research:
"Knowledge transfer from our universities to industry is key to supporting and developing a knowledge-based economy and this investment will enable businesses operating at the leading edge of key industry sectors to maintain that edge.
"The availability of this equipment will lead to new collaborative or research bids that will stimulate further research investment. The need for it is readily demonstrated by the range of companies supporting the bid from Swansea University.
"The unique capabilities of this piece of equipment, coupled with its unparalleled resolution, will greatly aid and encourage research and development activity in many technology based SMEs . It will give them access to equipment that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for them to acquire."
The application for funding from the A4B programme has been supported by a number of companies including Corus, Haemair, Cyden, Surface Technology Systems, GE Healthcare and Pure Wafer - highlighting the strategic importance of the equipment to Welsh industry.
The University said the only other similar open access system is at the London Centre for Nanotechnology although that particular system does not have the same specialist features.
Notes to Editors:
Academic Expertise for Business (A4B) is a six year project funded by the Welsh Assembly Government and European Structural Funds, and geared to ensure Wales maximises the economic impact of its academic institutions.
A4B supports a range of activities in higher and further educational institutions to develop more effective knowledge transfer mechanisms, to commercialise their Intellectual Property, develop new products and processes, increase business investment in R&D and develop and exploit the research base. Funding is available to academic institutions for projects that involve collaboration with businesses.
About Swansea University
Founded in 1920, Swansea is a vibrant, research-led university at the forefront of academic and scientific discovery. Set in parkland overlooking Swansea Bay on the edge of the breathtaking Gower Peninsula, the University's location is captivating.
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