While many think of “Nano” as the popular IPOD developed by Apple, or worse, machines gone wild as depicted in Michael Crichton's novel, “PREY, “nano” is more than one of today’s hottest products or scientific buzzwords. Nanotechnology is being heralded as THE next major technological development of our life-time. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, the projected global market for nanotechnologies will reach $1 trillion or more within the next 20 years. Yet, much of the public does not know what is the significance of this nascent technology. After attending the Small Times’ Nano Commerce & SEMI NanoForum conference in Chicago this week, listening to what the experts from both academia and industry had to say, I’d like to share some insights that I’ve learned.
A common definition of nanotechnology is the creation and utilization of materials, devices and systems through the control of matter at length scales less than 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; (One nanometer equals one thousandth of a micrometer or one millionth of a millimeter) for example a single page of a book is about 100,000 nanometers thick. Since materials, devices and systems are universal, it is evident that nanotechnology can effect virtually everything. Encompassing a broad range of applications, its’ potential is more than just to make some better, cheaper, faster. Nanotechnology will enable us to create products and applications that today we may only imagine.
Nanotechnology’s broad impact transcends industries. The university research community is actively pursuing hundreds of applications in nanomaterials, nanoelectronics, and bio-nanotechnology. Our own University of Texas at Dallas's Nano-Tech Institute is making significant achievements specifically with carbon nanotubes- yarns and sheets which are some thousand times stronger than steel relative to its weight. While most near term (1-5 years) applications of nanotechnology are in the form of nanomaterials, which include materials such as lighter and stronger nanocomposites, antibacterial nanoparticles, and nanostructured catalysts. Nanodevices and nanoelectronics are farther off, perhaps 5-15 years, and will have applications in medical treatments and diagnostics, faster computers, and in sensors. The most exciting applications in nanotechnology come from the cross-pollination of disciplines in biology, chemistry and electronics. Nanotechnology products include minimally invasive surgical tools and gene chips for early cancer detection and treatment.
Today the majority of nanotechnologies commercially used are based on nano-sized particles. For example, sunscreen containing nanoscale Zinc Oxide. The particles' small size makes them invisible (clear lotion) to the naked eye, eliminating the white coating so on the noses of the lifeguards we have seen so often at the beach. Other uses of nanoparticles have also made a breakthrough in the clothing industry such as in Eddie Bauer's stain-resistant Nano Care ™ khakis. Small hair-like particles are used to coat the surface fibers of the fabric, creating a stain-repelling surface. Healthcare companies are now marketing antimicrobial bandages coated with silver nanocrystals which kill off bacteria. Silver nanoparticles coating on the surfaces of many new refrigerators, such as Samsung’s RS-series; air conditioners, and laundry washing machines now offer antibacterial and antifungal agents. Materials with nanostructured features, like the nanoporous aerogels in Shock Doctor’s Aerogel footwear inserts provide more than twice the insulation against cold as inserts made from conventional microfiber materials. Nanocomposites are also seeing commercial use. In sporting goods, Zyvex, a Richardson Texas based, pioneer and innovator of nanotech is supplying Easton Sports with carbon nanotube composite material for baseball bats, hockey sticks, and bicycle frame and handlebars. This makes the equipment lighter, stronger, as well as reducing vibration. Some automobile manufacturers such as Toyota are beginning to use nanocomposites in bumpers that makes them 60% lighter and twice as resistant to denting and scratching. In the biomedical field, manufacturing artificial bone composites from nanocrystalline calcium phosphates, will enable composites made of the same mineral as natural bone, yet have strength in compression equal to stainless steel. So maybe Superman, “the man of steel” is more appropriate to be called “Nano-Man”!?
One use of nanotechnology that I personally have great interest in evolves around the cellular phone. Nanotech’s innovations would provide consumers with lots of qualitative benefits including better displays, faster loading and saving of digital media, the ability to recharge the phone from (sun and indoor) light and a reduced price of the device itself driven by reduced component counts and manufacturing costs.