The Next Material World

Get ready to research, reengineer, reinvent and innovate new products and processes. The National Science Foundation has predicted a $1 trillion market by 2015 for nano products.

Fundamental shifts in civilization traditionally are initiated and designated by materials -- and how an organized society masters their use. Historians have applied such labels as the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and the ongoing Silicon Age. Each epoch leverages new engineering and application knowledge, and the results permeate every aspect of a developing civilization, directing it to ever more ambitious accomplishments. Nanotechnology is initiating such a shift not because it is a single new material, but because it is the reflection of growing skills in seeing and manipulating virtually any material at the atomic level. It is an enabler. Will historians label the beginning of the 21st century as part of the "nanotechnology age"? Viewed in terms of potential to revolutionize the use of any and all materials, nanotechnology could easily be the label of a new historical period. Adding weight to that logic is nanotechnology's potential to be the basis of exciting new products that are yet undreamed of. Last, but hardly least is nanotechnology's potential to dramatically change manufacturing -- how we transform materials into products. Yet, on the other hand, some experts believe nanotechnology's ability to designate a historical epoch will be obscured as it infiltrates every aspect of human endeavor. They say it will simply disappear into a multidisciplinary convergence of engineering's ability to more efficiently add value to global manufacturing. There is little argument, however, that nanotechnology is ushering us into a materials epoch -- an age of design -- where today's conventional approach to materials and manufacturing processes will seem backward inspirations of medieval alchemists. To help manufacturing management plot business strategies into the technology of the nanoscale, IndustryWeek has designed this first installment as an introduction, a primer on how to explore and exploit the nano world. In the next installment, to be published in May, IW will focus on the implications of nanoscale electronics. In addition to giving new life to Moore's law through further miniaturization of circuitry, nanoscale electronics will bring faster, more sophisticated, and more portable devices at greatly reduced cost. That in turn will give electronics, such as sensors, a new ubiquitous, more optimum presence in industrial processes. From Antiquity To $1 Trillion Question: Will nanotechnology change the world? First a definition: According to The National Science and Technology Council, nanotechnology denotes the ability to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create structures with fundamentally new molecular organization and exploit the novel properties exhibited at that scale. The realm of nanotechnology is defined as being between 0.1 and 100 nanometers. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, roughly one-hundred-thousandth the diameter of a human hair.) Answer: With the ability to see and manipulate matter at the molecular and atomic levels, a new world of possibilities opens for manufacturing. The potential impacts both products and the manufacturing process itself. Get ready to research, reengineer, reinvent and innovate new products and processes. The National Science Foundation has predicted a $1 trillion market by 2015 for nano products. That estimate could be modest if one considers that nanotechnology is based on new abilities to see, manipulate and tailor virtually any material (electronic, structural, biological or medicinal) at the atomic level. Typically, the materials manipulated at the nanoscale exhibit novel characteristics at the macro scale. The key advance: Material researchers are now gaining the knowledge and technological tools to replace empirical methodologies. "As we continue developing [nanoscale] knowledge and tools, researchers will emulate nature by building materials from the bottom up instead of from the top down," says Zong Lin Wang, professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director, Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta. "The end result will be revolutionary advances in many different areas." The use of materials at the nanoscale has been common since at least the time of the Romans. Roman potters found that some glazes in that size range offered unique colors that would change with incident lighting. Other examples of empirical manipulation of microstructures include the advances in metals, rubber, glass and plastics during the industrial revolution. Many credit a 1959 talk by physicist Richard P. Feynman for initiating the current nanoscience focus that is revolutionizing materials engineering. "There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom" was delivered at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology. 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." Self-Assembly Expectations Feynman's challenge to the conventional practice of material engineering was to intensify as science began delivering the tools for "maneuvering things atom by atom." In 1981 the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) was invented with IBM Corp. inventors Heinrich Rhrer and Gerd Karl Binnig receiving the Nobel Prize five years later. That was followed with the invention of the atomic force microscope that produces STM-type resolution by moving a tip across a surface to create a topographical map. Feynman also called attention to nanomanufacturing themes that have notably inspired the literary world. His vision: machines that would make smaller machines, each of which would make machines that were smaller still, notes James Gleick's "Genius, The Life and Science of Richard Feynman," (1992, Pantheon Books). Versions of Feynman's machines emerged in K. Eric Drexler's "Engines of Creation" in 1986 to be followed by Michael Crichton's "Prey," (2002, HarperCollins). Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, managing director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), Redwood City, Calif., says self-assembly will eventually affect much of manufacturing. "It will be a much more efficient way to build complex hierarchical structures from the ground up." He says some of the first efforts are with solar cells and memories. "The long-term vision [among his nanotechnology clients] is to have machines that build copies of themselves, much like bacteria do. Eventually, it has been estimated that we will be able to build just about anything for a dollar a pound, no matter what it is, whether a super computer or structural elements." Jurvetson contrasts today's manufacturing processes with how the human body builds and repairs itself. "Consider that there is no robot arm in the body that is picking things up and putting them next to other things." He also suggests that manufacturing process will begin to gain inspiration by how living organisms grow and repair themselves via distributed intelligence. "Consider that everything in the body does what it does based on local instructions." Jurvetson speculates that a century hence the acceptance of nature's model on how to manufacture things will impact even the automobile industry! "Eventually people won't build things unless they are doing it as a hobby. There is no reason why people will be engaged in the labor of manufacturing unless they love it because there will be much more efficient ways. The automation will be very different." Seizing Opportunity Identifying opportunities, entrepreneurship, research and development and intellectual property are key nanotechnology issues, says consultant Neil Kane, principal of Illinois Partners, a firm that helps scientists and university academics commercialize nanotechnology. (He is also co-executive director of the Illinois Technology Enterprise Center at Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Ill.) His focus: business plans, market studies and financing strategies. Kane's mantra is that "having a great technology is a necessary, but not a sufficient ingredient for having a successful company. Remember all a patent grants is the right to exclude other people from practicing your invention." His point: Before research money is allocated to obtain a patent position, study the patents in the sector to make sure your company's patent goals are realizable. "The government may grant a patent, but in order to do something with that patent, it also may be necessary to obtain rights from somebody else." For example, Kane cites a researcher that receives a patent for a novel way of producing nanoparticles for sunscreen. "If somebody else already has a patent for the application of nanoparticles to sunscreen, the material can't be sold for that purpose unless the other company grants a license. It is fallacious to assume that a patent for making the particles grants more than excluding others from doing the same thing. That is a common pitfall that an attorney can help you avoid." The notion called "freedom-to-operate" helps to identify who else has patents that need to be licensed to enable goals, adds Kane. His advice: focus on patent strategy. Does the company want to enter that market, or simply obtain licensing revenue from a sunscreen maker? Plan and think through the opportunity before doing basic research. That's important in nanotechnology because of a deluge of patent applications. "There is even the apocryphal allegation that some nanotechnology applications are purposely submitted with vague titles that could be easily misconstrued by searchers. If true, they're looking for the rewards that could come from infringement settlements." The broad multi-disciplinary nature of nanotechnology offers another complication, adds Stephen B. Maebius, partner in the Washington, D.C., law offices of Foley & Lardner. "That requires the patent application relating to an invention in nanotechnology to carefully consider all of the potential end uses so that they are adequately covered -- an exercise which may draw upon expertise in several different fields." For example, an invention in quantum dots may have applications in both semiconductors and tagging of biological materials. Maebius says engaging patent counsel with a thorough understanding of the technology can improve the value of patents. "Taking steps to protect your intellectual property is critical for successful transfer and commercialization of inventions in nanoscale science and engineering." He says many investors will not invest without adequate intellectual property, and many deals turn on the quality of intellectual property. "It is important to consult with qualified intellectual property counsel at the earliest possible stage to ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect your intellectual property." (See Preserving Intellectual Property.) R&D's Lead Role The process of evolving that intellectual property also is gaining new attention, notes Robert Wilkins, president, Danfoss Inc., Baltimore, the North American arm of Danfoss A/S, Nordborg, Denmark. He sees nanotechnology spurring a much-needed revival in corporate research and development strategies. "Evolving, monitoring and evaluating technologies needs to be a core competence of manufacturing companies." To track nanotechnology's implications, Danfoss partnered with other Danish companies to form the Micro and Nanotechnology Research Center at the Technical University of Denmark at Nordborg, says Nordborg-based Jrgen C. Stannow, vice president, Research and Development. Internally, the company's R&D applies an engineering focus on its three basic markets: refrigeration and air conditioning, motion control, and heating and water. To take advantage of rapidly evolving technology, Danfoss decentralizes R&D according to market sector and maintains ongoing project reviews, Stannow says. DFJ's Jurvetson stresses that in nanotechnology "it is absolutely important to let R&D lead the charge. For example, IBM's research leadership comes from knowing how disruptive nanotechnology will be with current revenue streams." Under Jeff Immelt, General Electric Co. has become a convert. "The focus of GE's research is shifting to longer-term projects to create the technologies needed for future markets," says nanotechnology research leader Margaret Blohm at the Niskayuna, N.Y., Global Research Center. She says early initiatives will be nano additives -- materials, not the breakthroughs expected in the longer term. "Affected GE businesses will be plastics, specialty materials and various product introductions. Nanotechnology will create the second industrial revolution." Scott Rickert also anticipates that revolution, and he offers insights learned from being the president of a leading provider of nanoscale optical coatings, Valley View, Ohio-based Nanofilm. The company, established in 1985, is extending its marketing reach to automotive and electronics markets. One nanotechnology insight: "It's hard to make money saving manufacturing firms money. It is easy to make money helping them create unique product categories. And that was a hard lesson. They [always] think about saving money first -- then they think about new products. "Let me put it this way . . . we have been very unsuccessful in making money by saving other people money. We have been very successful in making money by creating new nanoscale product categories like easy-clean coatings, self-repairing coatings, cleansers that actually -- in the process of cleaning a surface -- repair it on the nanoscale. "When we create a new category, we own it, and we're No. 1 in it, and we can be very successful in making a fair profit for everybody. The people we sell to make more money, and we make more money." Rickert is determined to propel his marketing approach into automotive and electronics by creating new categories that redefine the purpose and benefits of devices. "We want to use nanotechnology to transform our customer's products in new and unique ways."

Milestones in Materials
1808 "System of Chemical Philosophy," published by John Dalton, establishes atomic theory.
1824 Portland cement is invented by Joseph Aspdin.
1839 Vulcanization, a key to commercializing rubber, is accidentally discovered by Charles Goodyear
1856 Celluloid, an artificial plastic, is commercialized by John Hyatt.
1886 A cost-effective method for producing aluminum from ore is independently discovered by Paul Hroult and Charles Hall.
1900 Max Planck's idea of quanta leads to quantum mechanics.
1906 Age hardening of aluminum alloy, discovered by Alfred Wilm.
1909 Bakelite, the first entirely synthetic plastic, is patented by Leo Baekeland.
1910 X-ray crystallography begins to emerge as a tool for the analysis of material structure. Developers include Henry and William Lawrence Bragg and Max von Laue.
1920s Hermann Staudinger describes polymers as molecules that link together to form chains.
1934 Nylon is invented by Wallace Hume Carothers.
1940s The World War II collaborative, multidisciplinary R&D approach becomes the role model for materials science and engineering.
1947 Walter Brattain and William Shockley develop the transistor.
1955 Researchers at General Electric Co. use heat and pressure to produce diamonds.
1959 Physicist Richard P. Feynman's lecture "There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom" dramatizes the possibility of fabricating materials and devices atom by atom.
1970 Scientists at the Corning Glass Works create optical fibers transparent enough for communication purposes.
1974 IBM researchers are awarded the first molecular electronic device patent.
1982 The journey to atomic and molecular scale imaging intensifies with the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope by IBM Corp.'s Heinrich Rhrer and Gerd Karl Binnig.
1985 Buckyballs (spherical cages of 60 carbon atoms) are discovered by Richard Smalley, Robert Curl Jr. and Harold Kroto.
1989 IBM scientists in Zurich, using the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope, show it is possible to precisely position 35 xenon atoms to spell "IBM."
1989 Carbon nanotubes are discovered by Sumio Lijino.
2000 U.S. Government launches the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
2003 Companies researching nanotechnology number 230 in North America, 80 in Asia and 120 in Europe, estimates Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm.
Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.