Molecular Manipulation

How Tiny Particles Are Becoming Big Business

FOR MOST PEOPLE, nanotechnology — or more precisely, technological applications that arise from manipulating matter at the molecular scale of billionths of a meter — exists only in the futuristic realm of science fiction and fantasy. “Borg” drones on Star Trek relentlessly seek to assimilate human beings by injecting them with “nanites.” Or the nanite-empowered spy from the National Security Agency — the newest six-milliondollar man — commands the center of this TV season’s Jake 2.0. However, nanotechnology has also become a growing research field and a large-scale international business endeavor.

Photo of Kevin Ausman
Kevin Ausman, executive director of the Rice University Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, poses beside a model of a carbon molecule and holds a bottle of carbon nanotubes. Nanotechnology is supposed to make computers small enough to implant into a wrist and could supply materials that strengthen and lighten bridges and airplanes.

With its roots in pioneering work on self-replicating manufacturing systems done by John von Neumann in his pre-RAND days in the 1940s, the formal field of nanotechnology dates back at least to a classic 1959 talk by Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. In his talk, given at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and published in the February 1960 issue of Caltech’s Engineering and Science, Feynman argued that “the principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom.” Nanotechnology, in its current form, aims to manipulate, position, and build individual molecules and, more generally, to create a variety of new features at the “nanoscale.”

Jim Hurd, the director of NanoScienceExchange, discussed nanotechnology in a recent talk at RAND. As a consultant who facilitates interactions between major stakeholders in the United States and global nanotechnology development efforts, Hurd works with start-ups to put together business alliances and to provide them with major rounds of investment. In his RAND talk, he provided insight into the real-world potential of nanotechnology, the current state of the business, and the global extent of nanotechnology work.

The Race Is On

What kinds of nanotechnology products could emerge in the near term? According to Hurd, we could expect to see nanotechnological sensors and devices make their way to market within the next decade. A large number of companies are working on many potential products, including smart materials that repair their own small scratches (think of self-repairing eyeglasses), stainresistant clothing, lightweight aircraft structures, improved computer memories, chemical catalysts (materials that enhance chemical reactions without themselves being consumed), and flexible solar photovoltaic systems that can be easily stored and deployed in space.

While the range of such products is diverse, Hurd emphasized that “these particular examples are just a sampling of what is in store for us in the near future.” Companies are already working to create, for example, relatively inexpensive flat-screen televisions, based on carbon nanotubes, that may reach markets in the very near future and “bring nanotechnology into clear view in the home.”

Early RAND Work Was a Catalyst in the Field

Although nanotechnology has roots going as far back as the 1940s, the field approached a crossroads in the mid-1990s. At that time, many leading scientists were dismissing its promise. However, no serious and objective exploration of it had been done. RAND researchers Max Nelson and Calvin Shipbaugh decided to investigate the potential prospects for themselves, fully believing the conventional scientific wisdom. Instead, they found the opposite.

In a 1995 RAND report, they highlighted many key areas of development, such as smart materials; tailored catalysts; novel chemical structures such as fullerenes, nanotubes, and dendrimers (tree-like molecular structures); chemical methods that self-assemble molecular structures; biomimetic designs that “imitate life”; and molecular modeling tools. Nelson and Shipbaugh pointed out that other possibilities could emerge using atomic force microscopes, ultrafine particle fabrication, and advanced lithography.

The authors noted that molecular manufacturing might offer promise in aiding human health and performance, thanks to synthetic tissues, molecular delivery systems for drugs, and rapid medical diagnostics. On these grounds alone, the authors argued that efforts in nanotechnology could be well worth pursuing.

Nelson and Shipbaugh also offered guidance. They argued for considering a number of valuable steps in a nanotechnology development effort rather than focusing on one final destination. Milestones along the journey would include the proof of principle of not only a highly capable final product, but also of many interim products that could be valuable in and of themselves.

The 1995 report catalyzed the field. In response to the RAND report, many workshops and conferences have brought together leading experts from diverse disciplines to analyze the potential of nanotechnology.

Globally, investment funding has grown to enormous proportions in the field and continues to increase. The combination of research and development budgets around the world is in the billions of dollars. The 2003 fiscal year budget for the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative — which coordinates the federal research and development programs of multiple agencies working on nanotechnology — was nearly $800 million.

How countries invest in nanotechnology (or “nanotech”) reveals their different priorities and approaches, said Hurd. In the United States, the focus is on small start-up companies. Several venture capitalists already play an important role in developing nanotech startups. As Hurd mentions, “It is important in this regard for a start-up to succeed in a reasonable time with product development, as opposed to simply extending research, to demonstrate a continued viable business model and to secure further funding.”

The investment model is different elsewhere. In some other countries, Hurd noted, “there are closer and more rapid ties between government and industry, with less emphasis on start-ups and more of a presence by major companies at all levels of nanotech development, from encouraging societal awareness to supplying the final market.” This model of development, common among some Asian countries, puts a higher premium on planning for nanotech development.

Who’s Leading the Pack?

At the moment, according to Hurd, the United States occupies a premier position in the field but will need to continue to work hard to keep that position. Several countries are investing hundreds of millions of dollars annually in nanotechnology. Asia is especially strong, and there are major research and development efforts under way in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.

Japanese companies have shown substantial interest in nanotechnology. During an October 2003 conference in Los Angeles, Mitsubishi Corporation discussed its plans to expand fullerene production from 40 tons per year to 1,500 tons per year in the near future. A laboratory curiosity a few short years ago, fullerenes (geodesic molecular structures named after inventor Buckminster Fuller) are now seen as having great commercial potential in areas as diverse as biomedicine, energy, transportation, information, communication, electronics, and the environment.

Fujitsu provided another example of the excitement and real-world possibilities for nanotechnology. The company’s research and development focuses on carbon nanotubes, nano-bio devices that analyze disease, and quantum information technology that could lead to amazingly powerful computers with the ability both to crack encrypted messages and to protect messages by introducing a whole new field of quantum cryptography.

Asia is not the only continent in on the chase. Europe also has strength in nanotechnology, with Russia, Germany, and Britain being the key players. International cooperation and competition are developing quickly in both the business and research and development sides of nanotechnology. As one indication of the interest in the field, Hurd noted that 25,000 people attended a conference on nanotechnology in Japan last February.

Related Reading

The Potential of Nanotechnology for Molecular Manufacturing, Max Nelson, Calvin Shipbaugh, RAND/MR-615-RC, 1995, 62 pp., ISBN 0-8330-2287-3.

Some Reactions from the Technical Community to Nanotechnology, available online from