Nanotechnology may be something of a buzzword for marketers, but the atomic-level technology is moving forward. A number of government programs, including the establishment of a large collegiate consortium, were begun in recent months, and observers predict that many commercial products will emerge later this year.
Government support is building quickly. President Bush allocated $3.7 billion through fiscal 2008 when he signed the National Nanotechnology Initiative law late last year. Another strong supporting move came when the National Science Foundation established the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, (NNIN; http://rbi.ims.ca/3846-520) linking 13 leading universities together. The universities, including Cornell, Penn State, University of Texas at Austin, Georgia Tech, University of Michigan, and Stanford, will share expensive equipment such as scanning tunneling microscopes, in addition to receiving a boost in money for research. NSF funding is approaching $1 billion, but that's only part of the NNIN support. "The strength of this proposal is that the states are also supporting the universities with funding," says an NSF spokesman.
These public sector activities will provide a basis for continuing advances and help keep America at the forefront of this new technology, but there are growing signs that nanotechnology is on the verge of moving further into the commercial world. Mark Modzelewski, executive director at the NanoBusiness Alliance in New York City (http://rbi.ims.ca/3846-522), contends that nanotechnology is already "a multi-billion dollar market." But that is little known because the nanomaterials are mainly coatings and deposited materials used on anything from stain-proof pants to scratch-proof eyeglasses.
However, that's going to change in the next year or two, he contends. "The day when production goes beyond coatings and deposited materials is fast approaching. Nanotechnology is no longer a science experiment," Modzelewski says.
One factor that will spark a takeoff in electronics and elsewhere is a marked decline in price for raw materials. Additionally, many of the vexing manufacturing challenges in a growing number of technical areas have been solved, Modzelewski explains.
Activity is expected soon in semiconductors. Though mainstream companies are nearing nanotechnology levels with the fine line »geometries used in leading edge devices, there are a number of startups that were established specifically to blend nanotechnology and semiconductor processing.
One of these is ZettaCore Inc. of Denver, CO (http://rbi.ims.ca/3846-524), which is focusing on memory technologies. Electrons can be added or removed from semiconductor molecules, and the memory state can be read by determining the presence or absence of these electrons.
The increase in storage capacity will be significant. "Our nanostructures can improve storage capacity one to three orders of magnitude," says Randolph Levine, president, CEO at ZettaCore.
He notes that that manufacturing process was designed to fit into
conventional semiconductor processing foundries in order to minimize the impact
of moving into production. However, there's one important difference between
ZettaCore's approach and others that offer higher density levels than current
generation memory chips. "There are fewer steps in fabrication so we use less
capital equipment," Levine says.
Brick in the Wall: Individual molecules
will be put into cells that make up conventional-looking memory arrays,
boosting capacity significantly.