The Nanotech Gold Rush

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

Though still a largely unexplored area of science, nanotechnology, or the manipulation of objects less than one-billionth of one meter in size, has already infected the popular consciousness. The result: curiosity, suspicion, and irrational exuberance.

According to David M. Berube, author of Nano-Hype, some of the most fantastic depictions of nanotechnology in popular culture-such as swarms of killer nanobots and mind manipulation through microscopic machinery-belie the technology’s real near-term applications. These include the construction of stronger, more-versatile materials.

“It is abundantly clear that the applications of nanotechnology will likely be both numerous and farreaching,” Berube writes, “but don’t expect a nano-industry per se to develop. Nanotechnology enables products of another industry to be improved or enhanced.”

By 2015, the market for nanostructured materials will reach $340 billion. For electronics and information related equipment it will reach $600 billion, and for nanopharmaceuticals, $180 billion, Berube’s research suggests. He sees nanotechnologies working their way into a broad constellation of products with commercial applications falling into the following six categories:

* Manufacturing and materials. These will make up “the single largest application of nanotechnology.” Berube describes a number of companies at the forefront of this research and development, such as QuantumSphere Inc., a leading manufacturer of metallic nanopowders used in fuel cells, hydrogen generation cells, and air-breathing systems. A Drexel and TRI/Princeton team is also working in materials R&D. They’ve developed a method for filling single-walled carbon nanotubes with polar and nonpolar liquids. According to the team, this produced “magnetic nanostructures with applications in memory devices and wearable electronics.”

A recent NanoSonic project has resulted in a new material that the company describes as “metallic rubber, which flexes and stretches like rubber but conducts electricity like a solid metal.”

* Food and agriculture. A number of large food conglomerates, such as Denmark’s Friesland Foods, are investing heavily in nanoscience. Friesland is researching ways to control flavor release and component breakdown in cheese. Meanwhile, researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Technology are experimenting with ways to improve the shelf life of food by incorporating nanoparticles into food packaging.

* Electronics and computing. Carbon nanotubes could provide nonvolatile, high-speed, high-density memory that both is resistant to radiation and uses relatively little power. Success in this area could provide for better multiplatform computing and drastically increased capability, particularly for future generations of handheld devices. According to the NanoMarkets newsletter, “The market for nanoenabled electronics will reach $10.8 billion in 2007 and $82.5 billion in 2011.”

* Health care. “Demand for nanotechnology health-care products in the United States will increase nearly 50% per year, reaching $6.5 billion in 2009,” according to the Freedonia Group.

The Quantum Dot company is developing clinical-grade semi-conducting nanocrystals that may help ocular and cancer imaging. And at least two firms, Nucryst Pharmaceuticals and Eco-Tru, are working separately on applying nanoscience to the problem of preventing infection.

* Energy. Nanoscience may increase the viability of hydrogen as an alternative fuel. Currently, liquid hydrogen can only be stored for a few days at a time. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are working on ways to extract hydrogen from ammonia, which is more easily stored and transported than liquid hydrogen. Carbon filters with nano-sized pores would play a role in this extraction process, a form of catalysis. Also, according to Berube, nanoscience could lead to photovoltaic or solar panels that are 100 times more efficient than the solar panels on today’s market.

* Luxury goods. The Japanese company Toshiba is developing an odor-eating refrigerator it calls Senszoko. And a group called NanoTex is working on stain- and spill-resistant khakis.

While these developments are worthy of note, Berube cautions that the field of nanoscience is still a relatively new one. He urges both public and investor caution.

“Leaders in the nanotechnology movement are concerned that hyperbole might squeeze out reasoned discourse,” he writes. “Fears might affect development and investment. The net effect might be significant. If we shave back some of the exaggerations, there does remain some fascinating benefits to whoever captures the ember that powers the engines of nanotechnology.” -Patrick Tucker

Source: Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz by David M. Berube. Prometheus Books. 2006. 520 pages. $28.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2006.


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