- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

A field whose products are too tiny to see seems to be headed for a big year. Nanotechnology will be an area to watch in 2004, thanks to an infusion of federal funding coupled to ongoing basic research and private sector applications in the latter stages of development.

Nanotechnology is a multidisciplinary field that deals with the manipulation and manufacture of objects 100,000th smaller than a human hair in width. Materials made on that scale — basically small clusters of atoms or molecules — behave differently than larger-sized ones. For instance, the element carbon can form both hard diamond crystals and electrically conductive graphite. Carbon nanotubes combine both features — they are both extremely strong and are good electrical conductors.

Last winter, President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which authorizes $3.7 billion in spending on the field over the next four years. That money will be channeled through the National Nanotechnology Initiative into several areas, including basic nanotechnology research and development of the field’s academic and physical infrastructure.

Industry is attempting to meet many of those grand challenges, such as developing nano-electronics and magnetics and establishing techniques for the manufacture of nanoscale products. For instance, scientists at Hewlett-Packard have developed a molecular chip a square micron in size — smaller than many bacteria. Earlier this month, IBM scientists announced they had developed a (patented) technique to make tiny, self-assembled transistors and an experimental silicon transistor 10 times smaller than those currently used commercially.

Nanotechnology will have a continuing impact on biotechnology. As “Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers,” a 2002 report from the National Academy of Sciences pointed out, “The relevance of the NNI to biology, biotechnology and the life sciences cannot be overstated.” Developments in that area — including the use of optical tweezers to measure the motion of muscle molecules and the use of quantum dots to study nerve cell receptors — were Science magazine’s No. 5 breakthrough of the year in 2003. In a few years, nanowires — slivers of metal no more than a few thousand atoms wide — may serve as sensors for agents of biological and chemical warfare.

A number of nanoscale products are already on the market, including tennis rackets, ski wax and stain-proof clothing. General Motors uses nanomaterials to make running boards and fenders, and L’Oreal uses nanocapsules in its moisturizers. However, few nanoproducts can be manufactured in large quantities with high quality, and a recent story in Investor’s Business Daily noted, “Nanotechnology … is still more science project than actual business.”

Nonetheless, the products of that project will have a significant impact on society. Policy-makers and consumers should stay alert for developments in nanotechnology.

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