Prof Albert Franks CBE DSc FInstP

Albert Franks spent his career from 1950 to 2003 at the National Physical Laboratory and was one of the pioneers of applications of nanotechnology and nanometrology.

His work was primarily in the fields of x-ray optics, precision machining, and he established a UK infrastructure for nanometrology to support the emerging field of nanotechnology. 

In the field of x-ray optics he developed a pioneering low angle scattering camera used for studying viral structures and metal fatigue.  He also developed x-ray diffraction gratings for soft x-ray spectroscopy inaccessible by crystal diffraction.  This required the development of techniques for precision polishing, and the measurement of surfaces of accurate figure and low scatter all at the nanometre level. The work was one of the early applications of nanotechnology that required reliable metrology at the nanometre level. To meet this requirement Albert Franks initiated the nanometrology work at NPL, the UK’s national standards laboratory. The techniques he developed were later applied to the manufacture and polishing of x-ray astronomical telescopes (for NASA and ESA), x-ray collimators for electron synchrotron instrumentation, and x-ray microscopy. 

With his group at NPL he led research projects that applied nanotechnology to the development of novel instrumentation for x-ray optics, surface topography measurement, precision machining, scanning probe microscopy, and optical interferometry in both the scientific and industrial arenas.

His work led to the establishment of the UK’s first National Initiative on Nanotechnology and the DTI’s LINK programme that brought together many nanotechnology projects with a strong industrial relevance, and led to 14 centres of excellence in the UK. He created a vision of the future nano-manufacturing technology, which he dubbed ‘scanning tunnelling engineering’, initiating multi-disciplinary research areas, including the idea of ‘biomolecular metrology’ which led to the recognition that the integration of chemistry, biology and physics is at the heart of nanotechnology.

He played a leading role in the establishment of the UK Institute of Nanotechnology, and was its Honorary President. This achievement is recognised by the ION’s annual Albert Franks Memorial Lecture.  For several years he chaired the Scientific Committee of the RNID, and one of his last projects was to initiate the development of improved cochlear implants for the deaf using nano-techniques.

His ability was reflected in the number of awards and honours he received. He was elected to Fellowship of the Institute of Physics in 1960, and was awarded the Duddell Medal and Prize in 1973 in recognition of his work in x-ray optics. Fellowship of SPIE (the International Society for Optical Engineering) followed in 1991, and in 1993 he was appointed a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in recognition of his pioneering work in x-ray optics and the metrology of surfaces. He was also a Visiting Professor with the University of Warwick.

During the course of his career, he supervised research students and was a source of inspiration both to colleagues and his research students.