Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Tells Scientists To Think Small

Itar-TassKurchatov institute director Mikhail Kovalchuk showing equipment to President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.
President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that the way to wean the economy off oil and gas was to think small.

Putin unveiled a $1 billion initiative to develop nanotechnology and turn the Kurchatov nuclear institute into the country's research hub for the science.

Nanotechnology cuts across various fields of study to focus on building devices, such as electronic circuits, from single atoms.

At least 28 billion rubles in state funds will be invested into the Presidential Nanotechnology Initiative through 2010, including the purchase of new laboratory equipment, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters at the Kurchatov institute.

Ivanov, who is thought to be a presidential hopeful, will head a newly created Nanotechnologies Council and control the purse strings for the new initiative.

"This is a direction where the state won't begrudge any funds," Putin said at a meeting with Ivanov, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, atomic energy agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko and Kurchatov director Mikhail Kovalchuk, among others.

The $1 billion comes on top of 150 billion rubles ($5.8 billion) that has been invested into nanotechnologies, Ivanov said. He pledged strict oversight of the latest financing, adding that it would be flexible and go into the most promising projects.

The initiative is "effectively an invitation for business" to join forces with the state because the results could be commercially used, Ivanov said.

Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko said the new technologies would help Russia develop the giant Shtokman gas field by generating new types of metals to build pipes.

Putin said: "No doubt, nanotechnologies will become a key industry for the creation of ultramodern and ultra-effective offensive and defensive weapons, as well as means of communications."

Ivanov said nanotechnology would help "change the face of the resources-based economy" and introduce breakthrough technology in metals, medicine and energy. He said 90 percent of nanotechnology would be used for civilian purposes and 10 percent for the military.

The officials gathered in one of the rooms of the Kurchatov institute, which spearheaded the development of the Soviet Union's nuclear bomb under the watchful eye of Lavrenty Beria, a frequent visitor to the facility.

Wednesday's visit was Putin's first to the institute as president. He last stopped in as prime minister in 1999 to oversee the presentation of a synchrotron radiation source device, which will be the heart of the new nanotechnology initiative.

Synchrotron radiation is generated by the acceleration of particles moving near the speed of light through magnetic fields. By using this type of radiation, scientists can conduct all kinds of tests and research into nanotechnology.

Institute directors quickly walked reporters through the synchrotron radiation research center, past experimental labs involved in the research of nanostructures and crystals. Floors in some of the experimental labs are marble, which tends to gather less dust -- a prerequisite for high-precision tests.

Kovalchuk, the institute's director, showed Putin an exhibit showcasing scientists' achievements in nanotechnology, including biochips to detect tuberculosis and other ailments and equipment to process oil gases. Putin took particular interest in an image of an enlarged mosquito on a flat monitor, Interfax reported. The mosquito's soft tissues, insides and blood were clearly shown on the screen due to refraction contrast -- a more powerful way of imaging than X-rays. "An unshaven mosquito. Shameful. It doesn't look after itself," Putin said, Interfax reported.

Institute researchers hope one day to use the imaging to detect cancer in its very early stages in humans. Tests are now being carried out on rats with tumors.

More than $100 million has been invested into the synchrotron radiation source device, which was developed after the Soviet collapse, and much more is needed, said Vladimir Stankevich, a physicist who directed the synchrotron radiation research center from 1993 to 2002.

Located in northwest Moscow, the country's top nuclear facility boasts a direct telephone line with the Kremlin but looks bleak from the outside, and many of the institute's scientists are poorly paid. Stankevich said many of his former students and colleagues now work abroad, and others left science altogether to work in banks or other better-paying workplaces.

The United States established a similar program, known as the National Nanotechnology Initiative, in 2001 to coordinate efforts by more than a dozen agencies and to "ensure the U.S. leadership" in that industry, the initiative's web site said. In 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush authorized the spending of $3.7 billion for nanotechnology research and development at five of the agencies from 2005 to 2008.

Stankevich said he had had many opportunities to leave the Kurchatov institute but never did, out of a sense of loyalty. His current salary at the institute is 10,000 rubles, excluding his pension and other sources of income, he said.

"I spent 10 years building this synchrotron so that those who left could come back," Stankevich said, "so that we would have a young generation" of scientists.