Nanotechnology Packs a Big Punch

In the nano regime, material characteristics are dominated by surface effects rather than bulk material effects, opening up a host of new possibilities.

Nanotechnology is one of those buzzwords that gets tossed around a lot yet doesn’t seem to have a clear meaning. “The problem with nanotechnology is that everyone has a different definition,” says Francisco Santiago of the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center (Washington, D.C.). One common misconception is that microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology and nanotechnology are synonymous. The reality is that MEMS structures are typically in the micro range and hence are distinct from the nano regime. The official definition of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative is that nanotechnology involves “research and technology development at the atomic, molecular, or macromolecular levels, in the length scale of approximately 1 to 100-nm range, to provide a fundamental understanding of phenomena and materials at the nanoscale and to create and use structures, devices, and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their small and/or intermediate size.” For involving such small stuff, nanotechnology is generating a huge amount of interest around the world.

According to a recent essay by Mihail Roco, chair of the White House/National Science and Technology Council/Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee, and senior advisor for the National Science Foundation, global governmental funding for nanotechnology R&D has jumped from $432 million in 1997 to $2154 million in 2002. Roco estimates that the worldwide annual industrial production for this sector will exceed $1 trillion in 10 or 15 years.

Anyone who has studied modern physics understands that scale has a profound effect on the behavior of our physical world. Nanotechnology is essentially another regime, a world in which the familiar macroscale behavior does not apply. In the macro regime, bulk material effects are most important. In the nano regime, however, surface effects become dominant, with the result that materials formed of nanoparticles, for example, exhibit very different behaviors than large volumes of that same material in the macro world.

Nanotechnology is cross-disciplinary, simultaneously drawing from and benefiting areas like materials science, physics, chemistry, and biology. Roco estimates that in ten to 15 years, nanotechnology markets will represent $340 billion per year in materials, $100 billion per year in chemical plants, $70 billion per year in aerospace, $300 billion per year in electronics, and $180 billion per year in pharmaceuticals. Indeed, nanotechnology is more about generating new solutions in different application areas than about nanotechnology for nanotechnology’s sake. “It refers to the whole set of activities that exploit the technology and computer power for manipulating matter atom by atom,” says U.S. presidential science advisor Jack Marburger. “By virtue of the instrumentation that’s available to us now, we have the ability to create new materials structures that do what we want them to do. That’s what nanotechnology is all about.”

With all of the scientific effort and funding being poured into nanotechnology worldwide, it’s natural to wonder when the discipline might come to fruition. “It is really anyone’s guess when the ‘real’ nanotech products might be released,” says Aryavarta Kumar, CEO of nanotechnology information source Atomasoft (British Columbia, Canada). “There are companies working toward real nano products. A lot of the commercial funding is actually supplied by venture capitalists.” Kumar thinks infrastructure is currently the most important aspect of the market. “Breakthroughs will most likely be on enabling technology to create future products rather than a commercial product, at least at this time,” he says. “Zyvex (Richardson, TX), for example, is working toward building a molecular assembler, which theoretically is an enabling device to kick off other nano products. Optimistic people believe that nano products could make an entry into commerce within several years.”

(By Kristin Lewotsky, OEmagazine, Jule, 2002)

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