Profiting From The Infinitesimal

Business are already in the nanotech revolution, but most don’t know it yet.

July 23 2007 by Ronald Bailey


The best way I can describe it is if you close your eyes and dream. You could never be hungry, never be sick; have all the energy you need, all the water, all the food and no diseases. There is no aspect in the world economy or your personal life that is not assumed to be transformed by this new technology,” says Pat Mooney. What is this transformational technology? Nanotechnology-the science and technique of precise manufacturing at the atomic scale. And who is Mooney? Far from a starry-eye booster, he is a fierce anti-nanotechnology activist. But more on that later.

Nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, manipulating and manufacturing things on the scale of billionths of a meter. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Ten hydrogen atoms lined up would fit within a nanometer. Our DNA molecules are 2.5 nanometers wide. A typical bacterium, say E. coli, is a thousand times bigger, measuring between 1,000 and 2,000 nanometers, while a virus measures around 20 nanometers. The width of the dot above this letter i is approximately 1 million nanometers. From the point of view of the nanocosm, the tiny etchings on our densest microchips are vast highways.

Nanotech is more a conceptual break through than a specific technology. It arises from the insight that it is possible to manufacture objects by placing individual atoms and molecules in precise locations. In addition, materials at the nanoscale exhibit different properties than they do at micro- or macroscales. For example, large surface area per unit volume of nanosized catalysts enhances their reactions. Using nanoscale platinum particles in automobile catalytic converters could increase their efficiency by 50 percent while dramatically reducing the amount of expensive platinum used.

Businesses are already in the nanotech revolution, but most don’t yet know it. “Just like the arrival of computers, the changes will be slow and progressive,” said University of Montreal engineering professor Jean-Christophe Leroux in the Ottawa Citizen last March. “We won’t see the impact on our lives until after much of it has happened.” This evolution is a continuation of businesses’ ceaseless quest to make products smaller, faster and cheaper. In the next 10 to 20 years, nearly every product will incorporate nanotechnology of some type. Outwardly many of the consumer products we use will look much the same, but their performance will be dramatically enhanced and they will be less expensive. Clothes will produce energy to supply our mobile devices and be self-cleaning; airplanes, autos and buildings will be stronger, lighter and more flexible; energy supplies will be smaller and more efficient; medical side effects will be a thing of the past as smart medicines target only disease organisms and diseased tissues.

In 2005, a survey of nearly 600 executives by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences found that 18 percent of industries are already marketing products using nanotech, and about 80 percent expect to commercialize nanoproducts by 2010. In 2005, nanotechnology was incorporated into more than $30 billion in manufactured goods. Mihail Roco, the head of the National Nanotechnology Initiative at the National Science Foundation, noted, “Nanotechnology development time is less than half that we expected. … If a company does not enter nanotechnology now, in five years it will be too late-it will be out of business.”

The Next 10 Years

In 2006, the consultancy Lux Research reported that governments, corporations and venture capitalists worldwide spent $12.4 billion on nanotechnology research and development-up almost 30 percent from 2005. By 2014, Lux estimates $2.9 trillion in manufactured goods will incorporate nanotechnology-or about 15 percent of the global total. “By 2015, half of the newly designed advanced materials and manufacturing processes will be built using control at the nanoscale,” said Roco. In June 2007, the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies published a list of more than 500 consumer products claiming to incorporate nanotechnology. More than $50 billion in nanotechnology- enabled products were sold worldwide in 2006.

Source: Lux Research Report “Sizing Nanotechnology’s Value Chain”

But one must keep these numbers in perspective. The consulting firms are counting all of the products whose performance will be enhanced or where some aspect of nanotechnology will lower production costs. The markets for purely nanotech products will be considerably smaller. However, all companies will have to grapple with how nanotech will improve their products and those of their competitors. In a July 2006 report, the Massachusetts market research firm BCC Research estimated the global market for nanotechnology products was over $10.5 billion in 2006 and will grow to about $25.2 billion by 2011.

Source: The Freedonia Group

A new report, “Nanotechnology: The Future is Coming Sooner Than You Think,” issued in March by the Joint Economic Committee (JEC) of the Congress looks 20 years into the future and identifies four stages of commercial nanotechnological development-passive nanostructures (2000-2005); active nanostructures (2005-2010); systems of nanosystems (2010- 2015); and molecular nanosystems (2015-2020). We are well into the era of passive nanostructures.

Companies like Applied Therapeutics, Crown Laboratories and SkinCeuticals, for example, now offer highly effective sunscreens using nanosized particles of titanium-dioxide and zinc. Zyvex uses carbon nanotubes to make sailboat masts 30 percent stiffer without adding any weight. Textiles coated with nanofibers enable clothes to resist staining. Consumers can now buy nano-protected khakis from Eddie Bauer and Dockers, deodorizing fabrics from Tianjin Rongze Textile and even stain-resistant nano- ties from Brooks Brothers.

The next stage, the development of active nanostructures, is just beginning. Active nanostructures change their state during use, responding in predictable ways to the environment around them. For example, Pilkington offers a window glass that cleans itself of organic matter by the interaction of permanently embedded nanoparticles and natural ultraviolet light. Nanofilm sells Clarity Defender, a self-assembling thin film that coats automotive glass and mirrors with an invisible, water-repellent nanobarrier that can increase visibility 34 percent on a rainy night.

In the meantime, much more transformational research is taking place in energy production and battery improvement. Massachusetts-based nanotech company Konarka Technologies has developed fourth-generation solar cells and incorporated them into Power Plastic. These dye-sensitized solar cells are based on nanoscale titanium oxide that can produce power even in cloudy and other low-light environments. While not as efficient as high-end, silicon-based solar cells, they cost only about a fifth as much.

Another bottleneck for renewable energy has been battery storage for electricity. Current battery technologies are heavy, don’t hold much charge, take too long to charge and can be charged only a limited number of times. Nanotech is now coming to the rescue. For example, A123Systems of Watertown, Mass., developed a Nanophosphate battery that has been adopted by BAE Systems as part of its HybriDrive propulsion system for DaimlerChrysler’s Orion VII transit buses. These batteries charge quickly and last for years.

Similarly, Phoenix Motorcars is ordering NanoSafe batteries from Reno, Nev.-based, Altairnano, to fuel its all-electric trucks. These lithium ion batteries can be charged in 10 minutes at a commercial 480-watt station or in six hours using home power. The trucks can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds with a top speed of 95 miles per hour and can go 100 miles before recharging. Amazingly, they can be recharged 20,000 times. Typical Li-ion batteries can be recharged only 500 to 1,000 times, and lead acid batteries less than 700 cycles. Nanosafe batteries replace combustible graphite in typical Li-ion batteries with nano-scale titanium.

How important could electric cars be to the U.S. economy? In 2006, a U.S. Department of Energy study concluded that if 84 percent of all cars and light trucks were plugin hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), fueling them would not require any additional electric generation capacity. The study assumes that the PHEVs would travel an average of 33 miles per day solely on electric power and could be charged using off-peak power at night. PHEVs have gasoline engines that kick in for longer trips.

Current nanobatteries are not yet cheap. They add at least $6,000 to $10,000 in costs to a vehicle. For ex ample, Phoenix Motorcars is adapting the $25,000 Korean-made Ssangyong Actyon truck to all-electric. Phoenix will sell its all-electric version for $45,000. On the positive side, it is estimated that all-electric vehicles’ fuel savings over their lifetimes will pay for their upfront costs. By 2015, the Joint Economic Committee report foresees the emergence of “systems of nanosystems.” The report describes this stage as one in which “assemblies of nanotools work together to achieve a final goal. A key challenge is to get the main components to work together within a network, possibly exchanging information in the process.”

However, this may come sooner than predicted. In May, IBM announced that it is building computer chips using a self-assembling nanocoating process. IBM claims that this breakthrough enables electrical signals on the chips to flow 35 percent faster and consume 15 percent less energy compared to the most advanced chips using conventional techniques.

Medical Miracles?

Nanotechnology will have an especially profound effect on medicine in the coming decades. According to Lux Research, as of mid-2006, 130 nanotech-based drugs and delivery systems and 125 devices or diagnostic tests are in preclinical, clinical or commercial development. In the diagnostic field, companies like Advanced Liquid Logic are hard at work designing labs on a chip that would use a drop of blood or saliva from a patient to detect cancer or infectious diseases. As for treatment, Abraxis BioSciences’ breast cancer pharmaceutical Abraxane encapsulates the anti-cancer drug Taxol in particles of albumin that measure 130 nanometers in size. Earlier versions of Taxol produced serious side effects the albumin nanoencapsulation dramatically reduces. Not only was the nanotech drug less toxic, it also improved patient survival rates.

In the next decade, nanotechnology will enable physicians to sequence the entire genome of an individual for under $1,000-yielding information about the diseases to which a patient may be prone. It took $4 billion and more than 10 years to sequence the three billion letters of the first human genome. By 2006, the price had dropped to $16 million. In May, the Branford, Conn.-based company 454 Life Sciences used its nanotech sequencing process to decode the entire genome of James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure, for under $1 million.

In its February study, Nanotechnology in Healthcare, the Cleveland-based industry research firm The Freedonia Group predicted, “Demand for nanotechnology medical products will increase more than 17 percent per year to $53 billion in 2011. Afterwards, the increasing flow of new nanomedicines, nanodiagnostics and nanotech-based medical supplies and devices into the U.S. marketplace will boost demand to more than $110 billion in 2016. What’s more, the U.S. National Science Foundation projects that nanotechnology will produce half of the pharmaceutical in dustry product line by 2015.

With development of molecular nanosystems will come a shift from evolutionary nanotechnology to revolutionary technology, says Michael Berger, co-founder of Nanowerk LLC, a leading portal for nanotechnology information. He notes, “Truly revolutionary nano technology envisages a bottom-up approach where functional devices and entire fabrication systems are built atom by atom. There is no way today to put a market value on this visionary technology and its hypothetical products.”

Some nanotech visionaries foresee the development of personal nanofactories by 2020, which, if supplied with energy, the right atoms and molecules and the right design instructions, could conceivably produce any desired product. Such nanoforges could lead to the utopian world described by Pat Mooney at the beginning of this article.

Nano-Utopia Speed Bumps

Powerful technologies that confer tremendous benefits might also pose large risks and threaten to upset social and economic relationships. Nanofactories that could produce supercomputers, vaccines and so forth could also produce toxins, novel infectious viruses and perhaps even nuclear weapons. There is also some concern that current nanotechnologies may cause harm.

The anti-technology activist organization ETC Group, headed by Pat Mooney, called for a “global moratorium on nanotech lab research and a recall of consumer products containing engineered nanoparticles” last year. Worried that nanoparticles in personal-care products may be harmful, Friends of the Earth began campaigning for “a moratorium on the further commercial release of personal-care products containing engineered nanoparticles.”

First, is there any evidence that nanoparticles in these products are dangerous? In March, a review in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology by European and Australian academic and industry re searchers concluded that the “weight of the evidence” is that current cosmetic nanoparticles “pose no risk to human skin or human health.” So far, so good. But the fact that some nanoparticles are highly reactive implies that they could damage biological tissues. One worrying experiment exposed bass to a type of carbon nanoparticle called a bucky-ball at one part per million. After two days, the fish had 17 times the brain damage that unexposed fish had.

In addition, studies on rats have shown that inhaling carbon nanotubes can cause inflammation; how ever, when carbon nanotubes were injected into mice, their livers cleared them within 24 hours and exhibited no harmful effects. An important point to keep in mind is that most nanostructured materials will not be free-floating. They will be incorporated into macroscale products like glass, plastics and ceramics where they no longer exist as nanomaterials.

Scientists are now analyzing potential hazards. The federal government’s National Nano technology Initiative spends about $39 million per year researching the effects of various nanotech products. In February, DuPont and the activist group Environmental Defense released a draft of the Nano Risk Framework out lining a six-step process for the responsible development of nanoscale materials. Under the proposal, the industry would transparently describe, manage the lifecycles of and monitor any risks that might be posed by novel nanomaterials. In an open letter to the international nanotechnology community in April, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the ETC Group and various unions, including the AFL-CIO, rejected the proposal as “fundamentally flawed.”

Clearly, businesses that want to use nanotechnology must manage the risk that it will become embroiled in polarizing politics just as nuclear power, pesticides and crop biotechnology did. As a study by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School found, “One might suppose that as members of the public learn more about nanotechnology, their assessments of its risk and benefits should converge. Our results suggest that exactly the opposite is likely.” In other words, people who are already fearful of other technologies will likely also bring their fears to nanotech as well.

When even an anti-technology activist like Pat Mooney acknowledges the stupendous benefits offered by nanotechnological development, there is no choice but to forge ahead with due caution. The Joint Economic Committee report argues that a moratorium on nanotechnological research and development is a bad idea. “Nanotechnology must be allow ed to proceed as other transforming technologies such as chemistry, steam power and electricity have done,” declared the JEC. “Regulations need to be based on clear cost/benefit calculations supported by scientific evidence. And regulations to address specific identified risks should not delay the advancement of a broad range of products that will surely bring large social and economic benefits.

“The world in which our children live will surely be a different one,” concluded the JEC. “Whether it is a better one is largely up to them to decide. Continued technological advancement, including on the nanoscale, will not automatically make the world any fairer or safer, but it will increase the resources available to those who want to ensure that it is.” 


Ronald Bailey is the science correspondent for Reason magazine.