Nanotechnology: The Very Small is Getting Big
By Glen Hiemstra, 2004
Nanotechnology is emerging as the next big thing. But is it real, or is it hype? Recently I attended a briefing by Dr. Viola Vogel, head of the University of Washington’s Center for Nanotechnology, James Moore, Managing Partner of Avogadro Partners, a Venture Capital firm, and Lee Cheatham, Executive Director of the Washington Technology Center, which supports and helps to incubate new businesses.
- Nanotechnology, to review, refers to the visualization and manipulation of matter at the nano scale, which is the realm of molecules and atoms. The scale of a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. The fundamental goal is the creation of materials with novel characteristics, using techniques of molecular assembly. Molecular assembly processes may be self organizing, mimicking nature. Or, molecular assembly may be engineered, which implies more control of variables and is more difficult.
- Nanotechnology is very real, both as a new science and as a commercial opportunity. It has emerged since about 1990 primarily because of the development of new tools for seeing and manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular scale. Obviously we have known for decades that matter was made of atoms and molecules, but new tools like the Atomic Force Microscope have made the science possible.
- A range of scientific fields have come together to comprise nanotechnology teams. These fields include physics, engineering, biology, and chemistry, while ancillary fields like medicine, computing and so on are also deeply involved. Each field independently was moving toward the study of the very small, and by coming together stunning new discoveries are being made.
- While in 2000 there were about 10 private companies in nanotechnology, the number has grown to 1500 today, and may reach 2000 world wide by the end of 2004.
- National governments are heavily backing research in nanotechnology, to the tune of perhaps $3.5 Billion in 2004. The U.S. began a major initiative to support R&D in nanotechnology in 2000 when President Clinton established the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which has continued.
- This is the first significant scientific field in which the United States did not begin with a decade or more of lead time on the rest of the world. Japan and Western Europe are essentially even in this developing field, though the U.S. leads in patents and in number of companies.
- Venture capital and corporate R&D money is increasing. Venture capital investment will approach $1 Billion in 2004.
- Fear that nanotechnology will become the next stock market bubble or dot com bust is overblown. There are great contrasts with the dot com phenomenon of the 1990’s. For example, there are high barriers to entry, including very expensive equipment. No garage operations. Deep scientific knowledge is required. No unemployed waiter or refugee accountant with an interest in the Internet will be setting up a nanotechnology company in the back bedroom. Intellectual property is patentable, and must be bullet proof. In summary, there is a small population of eligible entrepreneurs in nanotechnology. There will be consolidations and winners and losers, but no gold rush bubble.
- New products and opportunities continue to appear or are already in the marketplace. Here are three examples:
- Nano-Tex has been selling nano-particle fabric treatments since 2001. Leading apparel companies like Dockers, Lee Jeans, Savane, Sealy Mattresses, and others are using the products for almost perfectly stain resistant pants and fabrics. Fabrics are treated with molecular materials created at the nano scale, treatments which become part of the molecular structure of the material.
- IBM Millipede Data Storage. IBM is devoting one-half of its R&D budget to nanotechnology, including their revolutionary ‘millipede’ data storage methodology. Returning to IBM roots in card punch reader technology, this data storage technique departs from magnetic data storage methods. Thousands of nano-scale needles make millions of tiny depressions on a polymer surface which is affixed to a silicon substrate. Nano-scale actuators move the needles. The tiny depressions can be erased and overwritten 100,000 times in current tests. Data densities of a trillion bits per square inch are proven, enough to store 25 million pages of text on a postage stamp.
- Basic nano research at the University of Washington has revealed the counter intuitive fact that E-coli bacteria cling more and more tightly the more surface pressure is applied to them. That is, wash your hands gently and E-coli will be removed. Scrub your hands vigorously, and E-coli will cling ever tighter and not be washed off. They have tiny grippers that get stronger the more force is applied. Applying this natural phenomenon may lead, for example, to the development of nano-glue that gets stronger the more you try to pull it apart.
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.
Center for Nanotechnology, University of Washington.
National Nanotechnology Initiative (U.S.).
Nano-Tex, manufacturer of nano fabric treatments
IBM Millipede, research center in Zurich, Switzerland
NanoScience Instruments, an example company the new tools for nanotechnology