Taking the NanoPulse -- Around the World in 80 Nano-Products

Pack a small bag and let's bring home some souvenirs

Last month we talked about nanotechnology in the natural world. This month, we're headed into the world's shopping centers, hardware stores and beauty salons. Surprised? Don't be. Nano-enabled consumer products are part of everyday life around the globe, manufactured and sold by companies like yours and mine, and used by people like you and me.

I had some help from the Project on Emerging Technologies to create our itinerary, and, according to them, the database of consumer nano-products has grown 300% in the past year. Apparently, it's a small world after all.

First, let's step into a restaurant in Beijing and try out a set of nano-chopsticks. A company in China is adding nanoscale and antibacterial materials to fight E. coli and other food-borne illnesses. Seems nano-silver as an antimicrobial is a favorite in China -- the paint on the restaurant wall may contain it, and so could the air conditioner filter, kitchen utensils and even pet food bowls. On a more series note, there are computers with processors based on a nanoscale technology that almost doubles the density of transistors on chips to improve energy-efficiency.

Badminton anyone? Then let's head for Malaysia and grab a racquet made with nano-carbon for lightweight strength. And while we're in the neighborhood, we'll pick up some nano-antibacterial and deodorant socks for the game.

Take a hop Down Under and you'll find Australian companies that have nano-infused sunscreens and protective coatings for everything from glass to wood to teak boats. Think it's the time they save caring for glass and wood that gives them so much time for sunbathing?

Moving west to Europe, our first stop is Germany. And what would you expect in the land of the Autobahn, but nano-enhanced tires? In this case, they're bicycle tires, but for racing nonetheless. Here's where we can pick up some green technology, too. Another German company makes a super-water-absorbent soil additive to help dry land bloom.

For the French, nanotech has inspired beauty products, of course. Names like Chanel and Dior are giving glamour a small edge with nano-emulsion moisturizers and make-up that creates a "micro-airy nano-network" to perfect the complexion. In fact, my list of 17 French nano-products was made up of 15 cosmetics and two tennis rackets. Talk about joie de vivre.

Now let's swim the Channel to find the Brits showing us self-cleaning glass, car wax and tennis balls -- an homage to Wimbledon, I hope. In Italy, we can pick up nano-strengthened ice axes, for people headed to the Italian Alps, I assume. Crossing over, we come to Swiss companies using nanotechnology for air filtration, water repellant fabric, tooth whiteners and, of course, in Swiss Army luggage.

Let's pack it up and head for North America now. In Canada we pick up waterproof outerwear. South of the border we add anti-graffiti paint from Mexico, and then we're right back home.

In our own backyard we find more nano-based consumer products than anywhere else on the planet. The Project on Emerging Technology lists some 500 American nano-products, from engine lubricants to bowling balls, vitamins to light emitting diodes, clothing to toxic chemical absorbents - and five products from my own company.

But before you kiss the tarmac of home, let me tell you that our little jaunt could be very different in coming years. According to a Lux Research report, while the U.S. is still in the nanotechnology lead, other countries are closing the gap, particularly Russia and China. Our government research support has been relatively strong, even during the recent economic downturn. At the same time, company investment has been flat and venture capital investment was off more than 40% in 2009. If we're going to continue our leadership, we'll need the muscle of the financial markets. I'm hopeful the proposed permanent extension of the R&D tax credit will be helpful on that front.

And what about you? Whether you've built a full product line or just have your first one on the drawing board, I hope our globetrotting has given you new ideas. And we explored only consumer products! There are hundreds and hundreds more nano-enabled products in industrial settings, not to mention nano-components in a vast array of consumer and commercial products. Add to that the manufacturers for whom nanotechnology has become so mainstream they don't even bother to mention it in their product descriptions. In other words, there's a world of opportunity -- let's keep exploring it.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio.

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