Taking the NanoPulse -- The $263 Billion Nano-Question: What's Next?

Nanotechnology and the future. There's a certain chemistry, I think.

Lately, I've been focusing these columns on Main Street nanotechnology. The solutions that are close to home, close to market-ready. In a tight economy we're all looking for near-term results. This month, I'm going to back up and take a broader view. Why? The World Economic Forum has asked me The Big Question: what's the next wave in nanotechnology? The answer will come from a panel of corporate and research nanotechnology leaders at a World Economic Forum conference in Tianjin, China this September -- and I'm honored to join this global brain trust to offer my point of view. It's an especially timely question since recent market research suggests nano-enabled products will be a $263 billion market by 2012.

What's the answer? I suspect there will be as many of them as there are panel members -- all of them good. It's just not possible to tie down so sweeping a technology to a few bullet points.

My opinion? Let chemistry do the work.

Let me explain. Up until now, technology has focused on making things that fix problems. Machines, components, objects. With nano-enabled chemistry, we have a different, more powerful approach. Nano-enabled chemical phase changes and reactions will provide solutions, replace machines, make old solutions look like chewing-gum-and-bailing-wire fixes.

Let's start by raging against the machine. Nuts, bolts, gears, pulleys, drives, conveyors -- they make big, fat, rusting hulks. With nanotechnology, chemistry takes over their work. For example, let's turn off fuel-guzzling heating and cooling machines for buildings. Replace them with nanomaterials and nanocoatings that regulate heat and cold before they change a building's temperature. What about cars? As you read this article, there are already NASCAR teams using nanocoatings to cut thermal transfer in engines. Add that to heat-controlling glass coatings and rain-repellent windows, and you're doing the job of cooling, heating and windshield wiper motors. Hello chemistry. Goodbye machines. Here's another one. Multi-billion dollar fabrication facilities wrestle with the Moore's Law to make ever-smaller components. With nanotechnology, researchers are growing nanowires in place for transistors and sensors.

Let nano-chemistry do the work of machines, and we'll reduce our carbon footprint. Shrink the size of manufacturing facilities. Save billions on transportation of equipment. Stop piling up tons of worn-out, outmoded equipment in landfills. And probably have solutions that outperform anything and everything a machine could do.

But that's just the start. Nano-enabled chemistry can take over the work normally requiring elbow grease, too. For example, nanotechnology can be used to encapsulate the lead paint in buildings. No more scraping, protective air filters, or toxicity concerns. Here's another: a nano-enabled way to mop up oil spills that can ravage the environment. Researchers are working on a nanowire mesh that sucks up oil spills. It's fast, effective, and environmentally sound because the mesh can be easily cleaned and reused. And here's one as close as your kitchen. There's work in progress on easy-clean coatings for ceramics. It's good for you and your dishwasher. It's also good for the environment because it can eliminate the need for harsh cleaning chemicals.

I believe even some of the most advanced technology we have is going to be replaced when nano-chemistry goes to work. High-tech artificial cartilage for blown-out knees? Nanotechnology will someday help you re-grow your own. On the horizon is a carbon nanotube coating that actually attracts the body's own cartilage-growing cells. And speaking of cells, let's talk solar cells. The best minds in the world are working on nanomaterials that not only capture solar energy but convert it instantly into electricity and conduct it to a storage unit.

That's where I see the next wave in nanotechnology landing: right in the middle of chemistry. Have thoughts of your own? Nanocomposites? Nanopharmaceuticals? Environmental breakthroughs? Let me know, and I'll pack your ideas in my suitcase for China. And when I return, I'll unpack a report from the world.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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