Scaling-up nanotechnology

Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry

Imagine a microchip so small and precise that it could actually intervene and repair a damaged living cell. Far-fetched, perhaps? Yet, such is the promise of nanotechnology. But this new technology presents important challenges too.

Nanotechnology – the science of the small – is becoming a big priority in the policy agendas of many countries. Nanotechnology refers to a range of new technologies that aim to manipulate individual atoms and molecules in order to create new products and processes: computers that fit on the head of a pin or structures that are built from the bottom up, atom by atom.

Radically different laws of physics based on quantum mechanics come into play when dealing with materials, systems and instruments involving matter at the nanometric scale, i.e. one billionth of a meter or 1/80,000 the width of a human hair.

The characteristics of materials change substantially, in particular their colour, strength, conductivity and reactivity. For instance, a material that is red or flexible at the meter scale may be green or stronger than steel at the nanoscale. The immense challenge for nanoscientists is thus to understand how to manipulate atoms and combine them in original and useful ways to produce radically new or improved structures by exploiting the new properties of matter at the level of the nanometre.

Not only does nanotechnology continue to attract considerable public interest and growing business investments, but more than 30 countries worldwide have launched public R&D programmes in the field. Such initiatives go a long way towards increasing the resources available to research, but do they go far enough to ensure that the full social and economic potential of nanotechnology is exploited?

Indeed, nanotechnology is likely to have a major economic impact in the years ahead. In the IT sector, it could help further miniaturise memory and logic devices as well as boost data processing and storage capacities, long after existing technologies reach their fundamental limits. Nanoelectronics, based on the exploitation of quantum effects that occur at a very small scale, could provide a way of surmounting these limits by allowing computations based on individual electrons or strands of DNA. Already, researchers are working on memory devices with approximately 40 times the storage capacity of current hard drives.

In the materials sector, nanotechnology may allow greater manipulation over properties such as chemical resistance, weight or density, enabling development of new products in aerospace, biomedicine, building construction, and transport, for instance. At the moment, the most promising materials with nanoscale applications include nitrides, oxides, alloys, metals, organic polymers, and composites. In health and life sciences, nanotechnology could resolve fundamental questions related to the functioning of the immune system, by enabling genes to exercise greater control over it.

Allied with biotechnology, nanotechnology will accelerate advances in genomics, combinatorial chemistry, gene sequencing and bioinformatics. And it is likely to play an important role in the generation of renewable energy, mainly through the improvement in the efficiency of photovoltaic cell technology and the reduction of its costs, especially in the two areas of quantum well solar cells and dye-sensitised nanocrystalline devices.

The marketplace is taking to nanotechnology, but these are early days and its most dramatic applications are still many years away. Industry is watching, and so too are policymakers. The German government and the European Commission, respectively, estimated that the global market for nanotechnology accounted for between US$20 and US$40 billion in 2001. And the market will certainly expand. The US NanoBusiness Alliance and the National Science Foundation (NSF), respectively, reported in 2001 that the global market for nanotechnology could reach US$700 billion by 2008 and exceed US$1 trillion annually by 2015.

Available data indicate that government R&D funding for nanotechnology grew fivefold between 1997 and 2002, from approximately US$400 million to more than US$2 billion (see graph). In the private sector, many large multinational firms such as IBM, Dow Chemicals, L’Oréal, Hitachi and Unilever have launched initiatives in nanotechnology research and numerous start-up firms have been established.

Venture capital investments in nanotechnology firms, although still small, appear to be growing despite downturns in spending in other areas. Knowledge is expanding fast and the number of scientific publications in nanotechnology has soared from approximately 1,000 in 1990 to more than 12,000 in 1998. And the number of patent applications at the European Patent Office has tripled during the same period, from 100 to 300 patents per year. This trend in patenting activities signals the potential economic benefits from nanotechnology research.

Nanotechnology is research-intensive and relies on public as well as private R&D funding. To be effective, this funding has to promote a scientific and technological information exchange, while developing a highly skilled human resource base. It also has to be used to combine scientific knowledge from various disciplines in universities and government laboratories, a requirement that presents quite a challenge to more traditional institutions. Rather than allow this type of problem to hold up R&D, new multi-disciplinary research centres are being set up, like those being established through the National Nanotechnology Initiative in the United States and the six Virtual Nanotechnology Competence Centres established by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Public/private partnerships also play an important role in advancing nanotechnology by marrying public sector funding and research capabilities with the private sector. For instance, the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) created in 2000 as a joint enterprise of the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at Santa Barbara, has encouraged alliances between the public sector and private companies such as IBM, Hewlett Packard and small biotech firms, in order to foster the knowledge flows between the different players in the innovation process.

These approaches all share the aim of focusing their R&D efforts in areas of science and technology that are often beyond their existing areas of competence. They thrive on their ability to take advantage of progress in various scientific and technological fields and to collaborate with each other in pushing back the scientific and technological frontiers. In fact, collaboration between firms and public research institutions has become essential for nano research progress and is being widely promoted through targeted public R&D programmes such as the French Research Network for Micro and Nano Technologies (RMNT), jointly launched by the Ministry of Research and Education, and the Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry.

France’s MINATEC centre, created in Grenoble in 2001, aims to spur R&D in nanotechnology for industrial uses by linking several nearby national laboratories with private firms, such as STMicroelectronics and major international research facilities in that region, like the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, the Institute of Laue-Langevin, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, and Grenoble High Magnetic Field Laboratory. The centre also takes advantage of the local workforce (up to 17,000 jobs in scientific and academic research), the teaching infrastructure (10 engineering schools and 53,000 students), and the microelectronics industry comprising around 3,000 research workers and 30 international companies in the region. Japan, meanwhile, has created a large Nanotechnology Consortium bringing together more than 100 private companies (e.g. Matsushita Electric, NEC, Sumitomo Chemicals) and regional universities (Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe Universities) as well as a number of trade associations and chambers of commerce in the Kansai region in order to spur technology transfers in the field.

Nanotechnology firms compete with one another in various technology and market segments, yet, to get ahead and avoid duplication of data, researchers need to exchange scientific and technological information efficiently and regularly. One way to provide access to the current stock of knowledge would be to create a common data pool, grouping together published articles, reports, conference papers, books, patents, databases, etc. Such infrastructure already exists for research in life sciences and biomedicine, with services such as the MEDLINE system that is maintained by the US National Library of Medicine. Another role model could be the Energy Technology Data Exchange.

Perhaps the most crucial input of all is skills, since nanotechnology, like most technology, depends largely on the availability of highly educated workers, innovators and managers. Nanotechnology draws upon knowledge and experimental techniques that have been developed in a range of scientific fields, including physics, chemistry and biotechnology, as well as engineering and the study of materials.

Researchers and business leaders have to be quick to spot progress and identify market opportunities wherever they may arise. In the United States, France and Germany, new educational programmes or initiatives, including grants for young researchers, have been launched specifically to achieve this. These multi-disciplinary initiatives reflect the fundamentally powerful role policymakers can play in driving the development of this new technology forward. Nanotechnology may be small, but such is its potential that a serious public effort would be worth it.

Nanotechnology is not without its critics. There is already some concern that the field is over-hyped, raising expectations that may not be met and, in the meantime, draining resources from other fields of inquiry. A backlash could erupt against nanotechnology if tangible results take longer to achieve than envisioned by its advocates.

More poignant concerns are raised about potential social, environmental and ethical dangers of unleashing nanotechnology-based products and services into the world before they are fully understood — a situation similar to that surrounding genetically modified organisms today. The introduction of novel nanomaterials into the ecosystem, for example, could have unexpected consequences for environment quality (e.g. toxicity), and the merger of biological and non-biological materials into new products and processes could affect human health and the environment in ways that are unknown or unexpected. The prospect of self-assembling nano-devices raises these concerns to an even higher level.

In an era of heightened concerns about terrorism, the notion of hard-to-detect nanotechnologies falling into the wrong hands could cause some alarm. Still, it is possible to hype the dangers, too. All technologies, old or new, present opportunities for good or bad uses. Nanotechnology cannot be “un-invented”. Continued research can help us better understand the positive and negative effects of nanotechnology. It is then up to policymakers, as ever, to regulate against possible abuses and to invest where public funds are needed.

References

Conseil de la Science et de la Technologie (2001), Les nanotechnologies: la maîtrise de l’infiniment petit, available online (see link below).

ETC Group (2003), The Big Down: From Genomes To Atoms, available online (see link below).

European Commission (2002), Nanotechnology in the European Research Area, available online (see link below).

UK Department of Trade and Industry (2000), Opportunities for Industry in the Application of Nanotechnology, available online (Institute of Nanotechnology, see link below).

©OECD Observer No 237, May 2003




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