We've been hearing the same story about nanotechnology for decades -- with just a little more research and a little more time, it will change the world forever. Outside the computer hardware and biotech industries, though, we're mostly still waiting.
So when Peter Antoinette, CEO and president of Nanocomp Technologies, talks about a nanotech-infused future with stronger-than-steel, conductive iPhone cases and lighter, stronger body armor to keep soldiers safe, it's natural to be a little wary. Even he thinks so.
"For the past 15 years, nanotechnology has been thought of as the next best thing," he says. "Since then we have come into a period of disillusionment because it has taken such a long time for it to get traction in the market."
This slow progress has had little to do with the technology itself -- which Antoinette notes has been advancing steadily in the background -- but can instead be blamed on the simple matter of scale and cost.
On the whole, nanotechnology companies are still producing high cost technologies in low volumes, which creates an unattractive cost-to-benefits ratio to manufacturers considering adopting it for mass production.
The key to breaking into the mainstream and making good on some of those world-changing promises, says Antoinette, is ramping up production to bring engineers products they can use today at a broad enough scale to shift that cost ratio over to the benefits side.
After 15 years of innovation, Antoinette says, the industry is finally turning that corner -- and big manufacturers are taking notice.
"Large companies have always recognized the potential for nanotechnology," he says. "Now that they're able to see that we can deliver these things more effectively, we have finally entered into the breakout phase for nanotechnology in general."
Antoinette can attest to that as his company entered into a strategic investment relationship with DuPont (IW 500/36) last month to help scale up his carbon nanotube production.
"We're always looking for new technologies that go beyond what we have," says Thomas Powell, president of DuPont Protection Technologies. "We feel that Nanocomp has a good technology and a good lead on making that technology cost competitive over time. "We can help them do that as they scale up that technology."
Specifically, he says, DuPont brings experience taking an interesting technology and developing a market for it. Citing the company's revolutionary innovations for its Kevlar technology, he notes, "Scaling up a difficult technology is something we certainly have experience with."
"We've been looking for breakout markets all along," says Antoinette. "Nanotechnology has been talking about it for a while. I think now we can start to say it's happening. It's not just entrepreneurs dreaming of success. We're starting to see major corporations take a cold rational look at things and make the move. I think that truly backs up the dreams and turns them into reality."