Physical sciences and technologies of matter


Thematic macroarea

Innovative materials and related devices represent the pillar of all present and future technologies, with applications ranging from communications to transport, from data elaboration and storage, to biology and medicine, from food and agriculture to the aero-spatial sector. In order to face the challenge represented by the most innovative technological sceneries, it is necessary to foster the basic research, promoting interdisciplinary collaborations and exploiting possible synergies among physicists, chemists and different experts in sectors where materials and "dedicated" devices can be developed. Multi- and inter-disciplinarity are necessary to attain the development of the so-called "converging technologies", NBIC (nano-bio-info-cogno), which seems to represent the technological future and whose materials and devices macroarea is a pillar. Indeed, NBIC includes nanosciences and nanotechnologies, biotechnology and biomedicine, information technology, advanced computer science, communications and cognitive sciences as well as neurosciences. Recent documents, created with the support of the National Science Foundation, USA, suggest 2020-2025 as the deadline by which convergence will be mature and will be the basis for many productive and social activities. It is therefore strategic that, not only CNR, but Italy as a whole, invest new resources in these areas.

National context

Italian scientific research in the science of matter has an international relevance and has obtained many acknowledgments, both for single researchers and for their own Institutes and laboratories. This is testified by the numerous invited papers presented at international conferences and by the participation of Italian researchers at international bodies, boards and committees for the evaluation of research in France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, etc. Major activities are, i.e., those concerning ultrashort, high power laser sources, soft matter, very low temperature atomic physics, the study of complex systems and nanosciences. However, it is important to further promote the internationalization of research activities, by attracting a higher number of foreign students and post docs. Moreover, for technologies such as micro- and nanotechnologies, it is necessary to "focus all efforts on those centres having already a high degree of excellence, which can offer basic and practical services, able to develop as reference and aggregation centres, both for research and technological transfer and education, in connection between public and private".
As far as the Department projects are concerned, it is worth to mention that:
- Competencies and activities in biophysics and soft matter include the study and the identification of possible applications of the so called "soft" matter, the state of matter mainly characterised by processes which are self-aggregated in mesoscopic complex structures with extraordinary resistance and/or adaptation properties. Italian researchers working in this project have received significant recognitions at international level.
- In Italy, the complex materials sector has an excellent level in the whole national territory. Within the CNR, there are Research and Development Centres, dedicated to complex systems and soft matter, which are competitive with similar international centres. Unfortunately, investment in this field is still inadequate to develop all potentials available on the territory in a satisfactory way. An example of this is the high number of young researchers who, after having studied in Italian laboratories, are then obliged to leave the country to find a job abroad.
- In the optics and photonics field, the main activities are: development of ultrashort pulse lasers, of coherent radiation sources in the IR and UV (frequency "combs" generators), study of the quantum properties of light for transmission technologies and information manipulation, study of very low temperature atoms physics, innovative techniques of optical diagnostics. The successful projects presented within the National Research Plan and, in Europe, within the EuroQUAM programme, confirm the high level achieved in those topics.
- The national Institutes carrying on research in the field of nanoelectronics, sensors and microsystems, have a remarkable and well-established visibility at international level, as demonstrated by the different European projects coordinated by them in collaboration with important public and research laboratories (LETI-CEA, IMEC, AMD, etc.). In the industrial sector, it is worth to mention that Italy hosts one of the main worldwide semiconductors companies.
- The Italian research in magnetism and superconductivity has a solid tradition internationally, as proved by the relevant submitted contributions, either theoretical and experimental, and by the numerous acknowledgments obtained. FIRB funding in the above mentioned sectors was very significant, allowing the acquisition of innovative instrumentation and competences and contributing to further increase the Italian competitiveness internationally. The possibility to maintain such a high level of competitiveness in the next years is therefore strongly depending on pursuing suitable investments in research.

International context

The research activities of the Department play a central role in all priority themes also at international level. Among the goals of this macroarea there is the development of many enabling technologies, which are the main core in the construction of devices and systems and can be applied in sectors with great economical, social and productive impact, such as health, environment, energy, communications, and transports. In general, the science of matter has a huge effect either on the production of new knowledge and on the development of new technologies, with important consequences for the growth of society, of cultural and technological innovation and education. Extremely important is the role that the Department can play on the "industrial leadership" priority addressed by the "Horizon 2020" European Research programme. Within it, considerable importance is given to the initiatives devoted to the strengthening of key enabling technologies (KETs): micro-nanoelectronics, photonics, advanced materials, nanotechnology, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, identified as crucial for the development of the European Industry. The Department can significantly contribute to this strategy for three main reasons. The first is related to the close correlation between the research ongoing activities in the Departments Institutes and the Horizon 2020 KETs. The development of advanced materials and technologies related to nano-processing, made possible by the use of state-of-the-art investigation techniques, are key elements to meet the requirements of strategic applied sectors characterized by a high rate of growth in the world economy. The second motivation is related to the existence of strong synergies between the Department and important Industrial partners in our country, active in the field of Kets. In this context, it is worth to emphasize that some of the research structures of the Departments are located in the premises of Industrial settlements. In some cases we have the opposite situation in the sense that National private companies have decided to establish some of their own research structures within laboratories of the Department Institutes. The third reason is related to the skills of the research groups of the Department Institutes, focused on the design and development of advanced instrumentation and large research facilities. The Department plays a crucial linking role between scientific research and exploitation for possible technological applications thanks to the development of large-scale facilities, designed to offer a scientific-technological service to other research organizations and / or industrial partners.
According to information reported by the US "National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)," the number of job positions and the market value of products with a high nanotechnology content grew by 25% from 2000 to 2008. It is estimated that in 2015 about 2 million people will be employed in nanotechnology related activities whose market will grow up to $ 1,000 billions, touching $ 3,000 billion in 2020. Likewise, photonics is another strategic sector, which European state of the art is described in details in the "Photonics 21" document by the European Technology Platform. When analysing the international scenery of the other projects carried out by the Department, it is important to mention that:
- The coupling of soft matter with studies on biophysics, dedicated to the structure and the functioning mechanisms of biological systems, represents a very interesting project area at international level. This includes the research of new composite materials containing biomolecules, the development of devices based on the interaction and the interfacing of artificial systems with molecules, cells and biological tissues, sensors, exploiting properties of biological macromolecules, transducers of chemical-physical signals generated by molecules and biological tissues.
- Research in the complex systems field has rapidly increased thanks to the outstanding multidisciplinary potentials. In particular, either modelling, theoretical and experimental methodologies offer a broad range of applications in different fields such as biology, engineering, science of materials, economy, cognitive and social sciences. This widespread interest is proved by the launch of numerous specialised magazines and by the development of new dedicated research centres both in the USA and in Eu