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Nanotechnology is Getting Real

AFTER YEARS OF HYPE, IT IS ENTERING THE MARKET.

It’s been easy for chief executives to dismiss nanotechnology as pseudoscience or just plain hype. After all, scientists and engineers like me have been proclaiming it as the “next big thing” for years now.

But very quietly, nanotechnology€¦quot;the science of building devices and materials one atom or molecule at a time€¦quot;is finding actual commercial applications. And the necessary infrastructure to support broad commercialization is finally being built thanks to federal funding, venture capital, corporate initiatives and academic support from institutions such as mine, the University of Notre Dame. Industries such as electronics, communications, automotive, aerospace, materials, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, energy, the environment, cancer research and genetic engineering are currently impacted, or soon will be, by this new science.

Nanotechnology€¦quot;nano deriving from the Greek word for dwarf€¦quot;draws its name from the nanometer, which is one-billionth of a meter, or 100,000 times as thin as a hair on your head. Individual molecules and the smallest features of products like microchips operate in a nanoscale setting. Scientists say nanotechnology will enable us to snap together the fundamental building blocks of nature.

Recent inventions have given us the tools to finally operate at this scale. Biological, medical, mechanical, electrical, optical and magnetic properties all derive their properties from that length scale, and now, having the unprecedented ability to change and tailor materials from the bottom up is a very exciting opportunity.

An increase in funding for basic research in this important new field, as well as a handful of Nobel Prizes awarded to scientists who are pursuing it, has caused many to believe nanotechnology is coming into its own. Former President Clinton spearheaded a multiyear, multibillion-dollar National Nanotechnology Initiative. President Bush went a step further, approving even larger research budgets at the National Science Foundation and the Departments of Energy and Defense, among other agencies.

In the marketplace, the clothing industry already is using embedded nanoparticles to create stain-repellent khakis. Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a coating process to make sponge-like silica latch onto toxic metals in water. A plastic nanocomposite€¦quot;scratch-resistant, lightweight and rust-proof€¦quot;is being used for “step assists” in the General Motors Safari and Astro Vans. Sunscreens are using nanoparticles that are effective at absorbing light, especially in the ultraviolet range. And Wilson Double Core tennis balls have a nanocomposite coating that keeps them bouncing twice as long as old-style balls.

Venture capital has begun pouring into the field. VC funds took note of President Bush’s December signing of a law authorizing federal research and development subsidies of $3.7 billion over four years. On that same day, Nanogen, one of a handful of publicly traded start-ups, disclosed that it had received a patent for a nanoscale manufacturing method that it said could be used to make advanced microchips.

Today, there are noticeably more inventions that have nanotechnology in the title. So many, in fact, that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office now recognizes nanotechnology as a separate category.

Several companies, such as IBM, Intel, Zyvex and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, already have nanotechnology programs in place. And, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I would add that my employer, Notre Dame, is well positioned to meet the challenges posed by this exciting, relatively new science. Long known for its legendary sports program, Notre Dame has in recent years emerged as a world-class research institution excelling in many critical areas, including nanotechnology.

I realize that, as CEOs, you are constantly bombarded by promises that a new technology is going to transform your businesses. Your key goal is to wait until a technology develops so that it has actual commercial value. You must catch it at the right point in the adoption curve. For nanotechnology, that time has come.

Wolfgang Porod is director of the Center for Nano Science and Technology at the University of Notre Dame.

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