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Emerging Technology Report #44: February 13, 2003

The Promise of Nanotechnology and Productivity

- Summary -

Global Emerging Technology Institute

Last week, we discussed the new U.S. nanotech budget outlay and the distribution of funding. Even though the country- the government, corporations and its citizens—are highly leveraged in the midst of a stagnant economy, funding nanotech has become a very serious national objective immune to partisan politics, reduced spending and budget cuts on all levels. It has become clear that beyond the chances for success in the future, people are also motivated by the immediate potential gains of nanotech and the critical role it may play in enhancing productivity in existing sectors applying innovations to well-entrenched previously commercialized technology. Nanotechnology has been able to avoid the negative externalities of a weak economy by receiving relatively generous federal funding, strong corporate interest and an increasing interest from the investment community. This is all good, but this does not extend to all areas that are in need of support.

From 1993 through 1999, federal funding in each of five critical fields—physics, geological sciences, mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering declined by at least 20%. There is a growing concern that the consequences of failing to increase spending on physical sciences and engineering, evenly spreading it out among key government agencies, would be devastating. This means simply that in order for nanotech initiatives to be successful, there must be strong support also for the basic educational infrastructure needed on the university and graduate school level. The new research institutes dedicated to nanotech need to be stocked with qualified personnel and the U.S. cannot rely on domestic supply only to fill the expected sharp increase in demand. Strong demand will also come from the private sector, as nanotech becomes more commercialized and mainstream through its initial use as an enabling technology that leads to short-term productivity gains. The stagnant economy will put much greater sector on public and private R&D efforts to be efficient and commercially oriented.

The potential applications for nanotechnology have excited legions of companies and governments the world over. The broad application of the technology will be the key toward increasing productivity beyond what is possible with today's technology in a large number of sectors, impacting every step on the rung of the supplier food chain from materials producers to manufacturers. Such productivity gains in industrialized economies will play a very important role in maintaining respectable rates of economic growth. This will particularly be the case for economies that will be forced to restructure in many ways over the next 20 years, including the United States, Japan and Europe. Initial success in the nanotech area relates to the development of new novel materials for building more sound structures and devices one atom at a time. In other words, special techniques (such as "soft" lithography or nano-imprinting) will be required to develop working parts and successfully establish reliable techniques for nanofabrication.

Carbon nanotubes promise to make a huge contribution to early productivity gains in a number of industries. These structures are 50,000 thinner than the human hair yet are 100 times stronger than steal and six times lighter. A first step to commercializing nanotubes may be to pair them up with common materials to produce an enhanced derivative. Nano-enhanced polymers can be used in developing artificial muscle fibers. Stronger materials can be developed that are completely resistant to chemicals or radiation and are as hard as diamonds. These structures can help produce indestructible buildings, lighter automobiles and planes. They could help solve one of the biggest stumbling blocks to deep space travel by becoming the building block for ultra-lite spacecraft. They can be used to construct implantable microdelivery systems that administer precise amounts of drugs to the body. Nanotech also can be applied to improving the efficiency and reducing the costs of producing solar-power. Firms in the U.S., including start-up Nanosys based in Palo-Alto, CA, are developing "nanorod" solar-cells that can produce energy with the efficiency of expensive silicon based systems.

The largest potential market in the immediate future for nanotubes may be their application in next-generation semiconductor design. Nanotech research centers located throughout the world are working on the production of nano-sized sensors, transistors and lasers that would eventually lead to unprecedented speed and affordability in the electronics and communications sectors. Nano structures would be used to construct faster and smaller chips in nanodevices. They may be used to develop transistors as well and can make for inexpensive fibre optics. They could serve as the connectors of such devices that provide and interface between the mechanical and the organic. In Ray Kurzweil's book "The Age of Spiritual Machines", he predicted that within a quarter century, we will develop "biologically inspired" methods of information processing using far more powerful computational technology. This will be the result of advances in nanotechnology.

The economies of developed countries will cling to the idea of harvesting the potential economic gains to be had from the exploitation of such emerging technologies as nanotech. The growth and stability of their entire economies will depend on the ability to innovate in this particular area, the results of which will be derived from a massive amount of public and private sector investment and a dedicated effort to establish the proper training and educational facilities needed in order to meet the expected demand for nanotechnologists.

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