Two Steps Forward, One Back?

Two Steps Forward, One Back?

Leaders such as Motorola and IBM have embraced nanomaterials, but by spending less on R&D, the U.S. manufacturing sector could be stumbling in the race for more innovative products.

The nanotechnology concept is as old as the constituents of the pottery glazes used by the ancient Romans and as new as some of the coatings and composites used by automakers.

Current applications taking advantage of the unique properties of nanoscale materials are widely dispersed throughout the U.S. economy. They range from enhancing the performance of step assists on GM vans to eyeglass coatings, cosmetics, suns screens, wound dressings, catalysts and metal cutting tools. Nanoscale materials are economical enough to be used to waterproof everyday clothing yet sophisticated enough to serve as the magnetic coatings for hard drives.

Tomorrow's applications could include pushing the boundaries of molecular self-assembly with chemists accumulating more knowledge on how to build things as nature does -- by combining atoms into the desired molecules. Nanotechnology also promises spectacular achievements in areas such as medical diagnosis and drug delivery, extending Moore's laws in computing and a new generation of sensors. Evolving new, high-performance materials will continue to be the enabler.

What Is Nanotechnology?

It's called nanotechnology where the prefix "nano" denotes a billionth of a measurement unit -- as in nanometer. The realm of nanotechnology is defined as being between 0.1 and 100 nanometers. (One nanometer is roughly one-hundred-thousandth the diameter of a human hair.)

In nanotechnology, application success can be defined as the ability to ``use or manipulate materials at the molecular level. This means either incorporating nanomaterials ingredients in coatings or composites or being able to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create innovative engineering and medical solutions. (Atoms are a few tenths of a nanometer in diameter.)

See manufacturing101 for the history of nanotechnology and
advice on protecting intellectual property assets

But who will get there first? There are continued efforts by U.S.-based leaders such as Motorola and IBM and increased public funding for initial-stage nanotechnology research, but an overall shrinking of private-sector R&D dollars could put U.S. manufacturers behind their overseas competitors when it comes to converting nanotechnology into profits.

Today's popular excitement about nanotechnology probably dates back to a 1959, says Magnus Gittins, CEO and president, Advanced Nanotech Inc., New York. He's referring to the year physicist Richard P. Feynman addressed the prospects for nanotechnology at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology.

In delivering "There Is Plenty of Room at the Bottom," Feynman asserted that "the principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big."

Technically that challenge of not being able to reach down into the nano world began to be met starting in 1981 with the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) by IBM Corp.'s Heinrich Rhrer and Gerd Karl Binnig. They received the Nobel Prize five years later.

Are carbon nanotubes becoming a commodity? "Prices are falling. Expect a 25% drop in the next two years," says Mike Foley, president, Cheap Tubes Inc. The tubes are made using nanoscale manipulation of carbon, pictured at top and bottom.
In that same timeframe, a significant new nanomaterial was discovered -- carbon nanotubes, tiny cylinders of carbon atoms. Today, the early research seeds that led to the discovery of nanotubes has been translated into the redesign of a common manufactured product.

In May Motorola Labs, the applied research arm of Motorola Inc., demonstrated the benefits carbon nanotubes bring to high-definition video displays. The claim: substantial advantages in quality, service life and costs over current offerings, says Motorola Inc.'s Vida Ilderem, vice president technology, embedded systems and physical sciences, Motorola Inc., Tempe, Ariz. The company's nano emission display technology is described as a scalable method of growing carbon nanotubes directly on glass to enable an energy-efficient design that excels at emitting electrons.

Analysts give good marks to Motorola's proprietary carbon nanotube growth process and its precision in designing and manipulating a material at the molecular level. They observed Motorola's electron emission performance competes successfully with the process used by others (applying carbon nanotubes to the cathode via an organic paste.)

"Motorola's technology is demonstrating full color video with good response time," says Barry Young, vice president and CFO of DisplaySearch, a flat panel display market research and consulting firm. A detailed cost model analysis by DisplaySearch estimates that a 40-inch panel could be manufactured for as little as $400.

At announcement time, Motorola showed a 5-inch working prototype, the first of its kind, to demonstrate high brightness, uniformity and color purity. Display panel thickness: 3.3 millimeters -- about 1/8th of an inch.

Says Jim O'Connor, vice president, Motorola technology incubation and commercialization: "With over 15 years experience and 160 patents in carbon nanotubes and flat panel displays, we have developed a technology that could enable the next generation flat panel displays to deliver an extraordinary visual experience at a fraction of current pricing."

Carbon nanotubes also are making homeruns as a reinforcement ingredient in sports equipment. The goal is to reduce weight of sports gear while increasing strength, explains Ned Goldsmith, vice president, Easton Sports, Van Nuys, Calif. In February, Easton announced the availability of a carbon nanotube reinforced hockey stick followed by a reinforced aluminum baseball bat in May. Easton's nanotechnology supplier is Zyvex Corp., Richardson, Texas.

But don't restrict nano solutions to solving only niche problems, says Thomas A. Cellucci, president of Zyvex. For example, the sports fans watching those games may be wearing pants that incorporate nano treated fibers innovated by Nano-Tex LLC (51% owned by Burlington Industries). By incorporating nano fibers in the textiles, Nano-Tex is able to maintain a material's advantages while eliminating the drawbacks. One example: Consider the advantages of increasing the stain resistance of cotton pants or giving synthetics the feel and performance of cotton.

Design By Information

Despite the competitive benefits being gained in such wins as video displays, sports equipment and textiles, a material scientist sees nanotechnology's greatest win emerging from the synergy and interaction with information technology.

"The major transformational power of nanotechnology will be amplified and delivered across our entire civilization via information technology," says IBM Corp.'s Tom Theis, director of physical sciences at the T.J. Watson Research Center.

Theis admits some observational bias. After all, a major research focus of IBM is centered on nanotechnology. Seven of the 12 groups reporting to Theis center on nanotechnology.

"Secondly, of course, I am shapelessly presenting a view that is centered on the IT industry."

"The major transformational power of nanotechnology will be amplified and delivered across our entire civilization via information technology."

Tom Theis, IBM Corp's director of physical sciences, T.J. Watson Research center, above

But consider the inescapable merit in his contention: "IT, to an impressive extent, has always been a pervasive driver of a civilization's progress."

The reason people are excited about nanotechnology, he says, is that progress in miniaturization of information technology has become a very important performance issue. "It is an issue of growing the economic value of information technology many times over what it is now -- even though it is already enormous."

Theis stresses the complementary nature of the nano/IT roles: "When we talk about nanostructured materials, we're also talking about information. The nanomaterials have [structural] information built into them much more precisely than any materials heretofore. The processes that put that information into those materials will have to be under precise industrial control. That will be done with information technology systems. Even in an area like raw materials, all the new, interesting materials of the future will be materials that have much more structure, much more information designed and built into them. So in that sense, yes, IT is and will be everywhere."

Theis doesn't see IBM's nanotechnology mission as one of becoming a materials company. "Instead the goal is to help aid a materials revolution by being prepared with such things as devices that will make our servers faster and our storage systems better and more flexible."

For example IBM researchers have built transistors out of carbon nanotubes. Theis says the tiny cylinders of carbon atoms offer the potential for faster and lower-power electronics. This research is a step toward devices that might replace the silicon transistor when silicon-based chips cannot be made any smaller -- a problem chip makers are expected to face in about 10 to 20 years.

The R&D Challenges

Despite these demonstrations of new products using nanotechnology and the inherent potential of it to benefit many industries, manufacturers at large are not increasing funds to develop products for the long term.

Evaluating R&D spending for nanotechnology requires more than a cursory look at the overall projections by private industry for 2005. Although no one disputes that nanotechnology will impact nearly all sectors of the U.S. economy, an annual report on R&D spending from Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, indicates that total industry R&D funding will be flat in real dollars outlay for 2005. Private industry is expected to fund $191 billion in R&D over the $187 billion estimated for 2004, says Battelle analyst Jules Duga.

With much of the potential of nanotechnology still labeled "precompetitive," (maybe erroneously) spending by governments may be the better R&D metric.

The U.S. government's investment with the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) increased from $116 million in 1997 to $849 million in 2004. The U.S. 2006 NNI budget is $1.05 billion.

But does the NNI compensate for Battelle reporting "flat" R&D expenditures by U.S. industry? One answer is that the NNI has been a catch-up act since its beginning in the Clinton administration, observes Battelle's Bill Benson, senior research scientist, Advanced Materials Applications, Aberdeen, Md. "While we've done a pretty good job following and possibly meeting the lead of Japan and Europe, are we really doing enough to pursue opportunity in a technology that will change every aspect of how we use materials?"

Sure there are some industry achievers to watch, reports Cleveland's industry analyst, the Fredonia Group Inc. Among big firms with significant nanotechnology initiatives, Fredonia names Atofina, BASF, Bayer, Cabot, ChevronTexaco, Degussa, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, General Motors, Honeywell, Lanxess, Mitsubishi Gas Chemical, PolyOne and 3M. Fredonia says a few of these firms have products on the market, and others have allocated significant shares of their R&D budgets to nanotechnology.

While some may see this list as an adequate expression of U.S. R&D supremacy in nanotechnology, one has to wonder if the overall drop in innovation funding will eventually stall this initial research from finding its way into profitable end products.

Insight comes from a study by Georgia Tech's School of Public Policy. It notes that the global landscape for science and technology is changing, with increased competition for resources and recognition. Strong gains are coming from Asia -- especially China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and India. The Georgia Tech study also stresses the rapid growth of researchers in those countries. Also as more Asians earn doctoral degrees, they apply them in Asian -- not U.S.-based -- careers. At the same time, the number of U.S. citizens earning advanced degrees continues to decline.

See manufacturing101 for the history of nanotechnology and advice on protecting intellectual property assets.
The R&D spending comparison is also unfavorable. From 1995 to 2001, China, South Korea and Taiwan increased gross R&D spending by about 140% while the U.S. increased its investment by only 34% and more than two-thirds of U.S. R&D was in applied research.

In patent growth, the number of U.S. patent applications for innovations originating in Asia increased 789% while U.S. patent applications for homegrown technology grew only 116%.

Benson is encouraged by the emergence of small companies that with government help have come to market with commodity strategies for nanomaterials. One, Brattleboro, VT. -based Cheap Tubes Inc., is specializing in commodity pricing of a variety of carbon nanotubes. But Benson also questions whether the corporate practice of R&D will undergo the renaissance that is needed to take full advantage of nanotechnology's opportunities.

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