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Monday, February 07, 2005

The Business Of Nanotech - Origin, Current Status & Future Potential

Businessweek has come out with an excellent article on Nanotech technology covering the origin, the current status and the future potential of this technology. Excerpts with edits and comments:

There's still plenty of hype, but nanotechnology is finally moving from the lab to the marketplace. Get ready for cars, chips, and golf balls made with new materials engineered down to the level of individual atoms .The standard unit of measurement, a nanometer, is a billionth of a meter - barely the size of 10 hydrogen atoms in a row. In this universe entire dramas can unfold on the tip of a pin, and a sneeze packs the punch of a raging hurricane. Researchers have discovered that matter at this tiny scale often behaves very differently. While some of the science behind this phenomenon is still shrouded in mystery, the commercial potential of the infinitesimal is coming sharply into focus. Familiar materials - from gold to carbon soot - display startling and useful new properties. Some transmit light or electricity. Others become harder than diamonds or turn into potent chemical catalysts. Researchers find that a tiny dose of nanoparticles can transform the chemistry and nature of far bigger things, creating everything from fortified fenders to superefficient fuel cells. Engineers working at the nano scale have a brand-new tool kit that's full of wonder and brimming with potential riches.

Yet new nano-based products that could have a far bigger impact are only a step or two away. Within the next two years, diagnostic machines with components built at the nano scale should allow doctors and nurses to carry pint-size laboratories in their briefcases, perhaps to test for HIV or count white blood cells on the spot. Nano sensors will scour airports and post offices for anthrax and sarin. Toward the end of the decade, scientists say, new computer memories composed of nanoparticles could conceivably pack the digital contents of the Library of Congress into a machine the size of a yo-yo. How does nanotechnology conjure up such surprises? Nature provides examples of this molecular magic. Think of coal compressing, over millennia, into diamonds. The gems are made of the same carbon atoms. But they've been rejiggered over time into orderly crystal patterns linked by superstrong chemical bonds. Soft becomes hard, sooty blackness becomes glittering clarity.

The challenge for nano industries is to ensure that their new materials are safe in the human body and in the environment. Setbacks could sink nano companies and even lead to a global backlash among the same activists who are raging against genetically modified food. "I'm worried about an overreaction to both the hype and the fear," says Kristen Kulinowski, an executive director at Rice University's Center for Biological & Environmental Nanotechnology. Nano innovators aren't likely to replace the silicon chip anytime soon, but they could help ease the squeeze over the next decade. This process has already started with memory chips, the least complicated kind. Within two or three years, developers hope to make viable memory chips from spaghetti-shaped carbon nanotubes, each one only 1 nm wide. Further out, engineers are learning how to replace minuscule metal circuits and gateways on today's chips with new nano-engineered materialsThe future of nanotechnology? It may seem strange now, but within a decade or so the term is likely to vanish from syllabuses and portfolios and remain part of company names only as a vestige of the past. After all, nano denotes only size. Once work on that scale becomes routine, that buzzword will fade. But the physical world -- medicines, metals, and even the roles the elements play - will be utterly changed by this revolution, all brought about by bits far too small for the eye to see.

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