As public dollars are pumped into nanotech research, an element of industry emerges.
The goal of controlling things on the scale of individual atoms or molecules has captured the imaginationsand research dollarsof scientists, including chemists, biologists, physicists, and engineers worldwide. Efforts to establish fundamental rules and achieve the reality of deliberate nanoscale manipulation are ongoing in hundreds of university and government laboratories. In addition, there is much work aimed specifically at developing applications. Programs such as the U.S. governments National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) are deeply invested in accelerating progress. Implemented in 2000 at a funding level of $270 million, NNI has requested approximately $518 million for 2002.
Public money has upped the ante for basic nanotechnology research, but private businesses, patents in tow, have also entered the field (Figure 1).
One important segment of companies that are creating a market for themselves are those that produce and sell nanomaterialsmetal powders, ceramic fibers, clays, thin films, and more that are made up of grains smaller than 100 nm. These materials provide enhanced properties such as strength, ductility, and wear-resistance, and are currently being used in many applications, including rocket fuels, industrial coatings, and even skin lotions. Also included in this sector are several companies that have been established to make and sell carbon nanotubesfullerene-related cylinders that have sparked much interest for electronics and drug delivery applications.
The tools for making and manipulating nanomaterials have gained notable profit potential as well. Companies advancing nanopositioning and nanoimaging techniques, particularly atomic force and scanning probe microscopy, have numerous customers in both academia and industryas do makers of software that can model or simulate nanoscale materials.
Innovations in electronics (and photonics) are among the most salient promises of nanotechnology, and specific endeavors in this area have made their way into industrial environs. Several companies are involved in doing research on molecular electronic devices such as switches and wires for use and commercial development in computers, telecommunications, imaging, and much more, although these products are not expected to come to full fruition for some time.
The other field in which big things are expected from small-scale manipulation is biomedicine. Implementing nano-electronic and photonic elements into biochip platforms and biolabels is the business plan for several organizations. Groups on the medical front are also looking to commercialize nanomaterial formulations for targeted therapeutics or drug delivery systems.
Finally, even at this early stage of nanotechnology, there are a few companies specifically aiming to make good on one of the long-term tenets of nanotech soothsayers, namely the construction of molecular machine manufacturing systems that will be able to build generic bulk materialsatom by atom (or molecule by molecule).
How quickly and in what form nanotechnology will develop as an industry is still not clear, as many of the current companies are only a few years old. But as public initiatives continue to accelerate, the range of opportunities for industrialization will likely grow.
David Filmore is a staff editor of Todays Chemist at Work. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to firstname.lastname@example.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.