Forget the hype. With each passing week comes a new announcement of a product or process transformed through nanotechnology.
Competing in a realm where their creations are typically below 100 nm (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter), researchers are developing new materials and devices with properties far superior toanything on the market today.
And the pace of development is quickening, as companies, venture capitalists,and governments pour more money into nanotech projects. Last year, the federal government spent $1 billion on nanotechnology, with state governments allocating $400 million. That represents the largest publicly-funded science initiative since the dawning of the space race, according to Lux Research, a NY firm specializing in nanotechnology issues.
"Biotechnology created more than 400,000 jobs from 1979 to 1999," says Lux Research Managing Director, Mark Modzelewski. "Nanotechnology promises a far greater economic impact because it can affect not just biologically-derived products, but all manufactured goods."
Adds Sean Murdock, executive vice president of the NanoBusiness Alliance, "The U.S. leads the world in nanotechnology, but other governments have made the commitment to close the gap."
Patent gold rush
Companies ranging from tiny startups to global giants are flooding the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with nano-related filings. Lux reports that, as of March of this year, 3,818 U.S. nanotechnology patents had already been issued, with nearly 1,800 more awaiting judgment.
In Houston, Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. has amassed 100 patents or patent applications. Most of this intellectual property relates to research on carbon nanotubes by Company Chairman Richard Smalley during two decades of research at Rice University. A Nobel Prize winner, Smalley pioneered many application-enabling techniques for carbon nanotubes, the hollow molecular structures that are the building blocks of many nanotech products.
Even in small diameters of 1-3 nm, the tubes conduct electricity and heat very well and provide a tensile strength 100 times that of steel at about one-sixth the density. Such properties suggest a raft of applications: composite materials, high-strength fibers, fuel cells, flat-panel displays, and processes where the nanotubes are doped with metals or used as catalysts.
Among Carbon Nanotechnologies' projects is a $3.96 million contract from the Office of Naval Research to develop tough new caulks, sealants, and gaskets for military aircrafts. The payoff: weight savings and reduced maintenance costs.
"The biggest challenge we have is not convincing customers of the benefits of this technology," says Thomas Pitstick, business development manager. "It's scaling up our manufacturing to produce the material in sufficient volume."
Golf balls to pipe coatings
Another nanotech materials company, Buffalo-based NanoDynamics, recently sent out the first samples of what is being billed as the most revolutionary new golf ball in 50 years. It features a hollow metal core that pushes the weight to the outer edge of the ball. Result: less spin and greater accuracy. CEO Keith Blakely says his company, which he co-founded in 2002, plans to manufacture the metal core and other nanomaterials that go into the ball, as well as license the technology to major golf-ball manufacturers.
In addition, NanoDynamics is targeting 2006 for commercialization of solid oxide portable fuel cells based on nanomaterials. The 50W propane-powered system can operate 10 times longer than a battery pack of similar weight, according to the company. Potential uses: defense, outdoor lighted signage, and remote chemical processing. Still other projects tap silver powders in the sub-100 nm range for such potential uses as bacteria-resistant coatings on appliances and printable circuits for RFID tags.
Vermont-based Seldon Laboratories, started in 2003, is using filters made of carbon nanotubes in portable water purification and desalination systems for the Air Force. However, Marketing Director Jonathan Wilson expects the company to introduce other systems for the commercial market, including a hand-held device to convert any water source into potable water.
In Naples, FL, start-up Industrial Nanotech has parlayed basic research from Sandia Labs and the resources of contract manufacturers to produce a new industrial coating with superior insulation protection and corrosion resistance. Featuring a patent-pending nanocomposite made from Hydro-NM-Oxide particles, the coating is being applied on pipes and tanks on farms, ships, and refineries, as well as on residential plumbing.
"There are tons of opportunities in this fast-moving field," says CEO Stuart Burchill. "The exciting thing is that we are starting at the molecular and atomic level to build materials from the ground up that are tailored to the application."
Giants make their move
While entrepreneurs are touting nanotechnology as the "next big thing," established companies are by no means sitting idle. Industry icons as varied as DuPont, Wilson Sporting Goods, Lucent, and Hewlett-Packard have launched major nanotech programs.
DuPont has developed a wire coating called Voltron that could hold great promise for energy conservation. In tests on electronic motors, researchers found that the coating lengthened the time between failures by a factor of 10. With electric motors consuming about 65 percent of U.S. energy, the coating could yield big savings if used extensively.
Wilson Sporting Goods is offering a new line of "nCode" tennis racquets that have already been adopted by big-name pros Roger Federer, Lindsay Davenport, and the Williams sisters. Typically, racquets are made from billions of carbon fibers, but voids exist at the nanoscopic level between fibers, creating stress points and weakening the frame. By filling these voids with nano-sized silicondioxide carbon fibers, Wilson claims that it has made the frames twice as strong. List price: $169 to $299.
In electronics, researchers have been playing in the nano arena for years, with the latest commercial chips boasting feature sizes of 65 nm. However, experts warn that further advances in computing power and speed could be thwarted in the next decade by the physical limitations of conventional silicon. As a result, the world's electronics giants are searching for alternatives.
Earlier this year, scientists at HP Labs demonstrated that advances in computing power could continue by eliminating the need for transistors, the basic building block of computing for the last 50 years.Using electronic devices created by trapping an electrically switchable layer only a few atoms thick between crossed wires, researchers were able to store memory and perform a logic function at each intersection of wires.
"We are reinventing the computer at the molecular scale," explains Stan Williams, HP senior fellow. "The crossbar latch provides a key element needed for building a computer using nanometer-sized devices that are relatively inexpensive and easy to build."
Nano research in electronics is also spawning partnerships between large companies and nimble small ones. New Jersey-based mPhase, a producer of components for telecommunications, has teamed with Lucent Bell Labs on a nanostructured battery with up to twice the shelf life of ordinary cells. It is based on a discovery that liquid droplets of electrolyte will stay in a dormant state atop microscopic structures called "nanograss" until stimulated to flow, thereby triggering a reaction producing electric current. Steve Simon, executive VP for research at mPhase, says that the batteries could power remote sensors or even be integrated into RFID tags.
Meanwhile, the surge of nano activity worldwide has spurred demand for the ultrapowerful microscopes and atomic probes that researchers need to create and manipulate nanomaterials. One industry leader, FEI, reported a 15 percent jump in net sales in its first quarter of 2005, versus the same period in 2004. In August, the company introduced the Titan, a scanning/transmission electron microscope priced in the $2.5 to $5 million range. FEI calls the Titan the world's most advanced commercially-available microscope, yielding atomic-scale imaging with resolution below 0.7A (1A, or Angstrom, is 10 times smaller than 1 nm).
"We listened to the nanotechnology market and to the pioneers in the field," says Dominique Hubert, commercial manager for FEI's transmission microscope line. "They needed a microscope that will help them see and understand materials at the smallest possible scale."
With such sophisticated tools-and an ever-increasing infusion of funds, the pace of discovery in nanotechnology is sure to heat up. As a result, experts envision a vast new array of materials, components, and devices that will revolutionize the world of design.