Taking The NanoPulse -- Add Uncle Sam To Your Nanotech R&D Team

Trying to commercialize a nanotech innovation? Put your tax dollars to work.

Your internal R&D staff has an idea on how to put nanotechnology to work in a new product -- or improving an existing one. The stumbling block? You need specialized resources to get it done: nanoscale characterization equipment like an Atomic Force Microscope, or analysis expertise, or nanoscale prototyping capabilities.

Uncle Sam may be able to provide just the resources you need, thanks to U.S. Federal dollars invested in facilities to help keep American technology and products at the leading edge in global markets. The program is called the National Nanotechnology Initiative and it was funded to at the level of $1,081 million in FY 2005, with estimates for $1,054 in FY 2006. That funding goes to Federal agencies and departments that include the National Science Foundation, the Departments of Defense and Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA, who funnel it to universities across the country for nanotechnology research. And here's the good news for your company. A healthy portion of that budget is targeted at partnerships between researchers and private enterprise to jumpstart technology transfer and commercialization.

How can you, as an individual company, put those tax dollars to work? The NNI funds more than 100 nanoscience and technology centers and networks of excellence. Some of the most sophisticated laboratories in the world have the skills to help you. Each of them has one or several areas of concentration, so there are specialists in key areas without overlap, optimizing the federal budget dollars. The one you need may be in your back yard, or it may be across the country, but its expertise is available to industry.

The NNI-funded organizations fall into three groups. First, the National Science Foundation funds the National Nanofabrication Infrastructure Network (NNIN), 13 university sites that form an integrated, nationwide system of user facilities to support research and education in nanoscale science, engineering and technology. They're found at Cornell, Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford, Northwestern University of New Mexico and other major universities.

In addition to the NNIN, multidisciplinary Centers and Networks of Excellence spread the reach of government-supported nanotech research even further. These Centers and Networks perform multidisciplinary research throughout the country, each with areas of specialized expertise. Nanoconductors? Try the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Cancer treatments? University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Sensors? Northeastern University. Nanomagnetics? University of Nebraska.

Finally, my favorite: R&D User Centers and Facilities. Housed as part of university campuses, think of them as nanotechnology Rent-a-labs. Funded through the Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation, they make facilities, equipment and trained technicians available on an as-needed basis. There's no direct relationship to the university involving research goals or shared intellectual property rights; the university lab serves simply as an expert resource.

Federally supported university facilities aren't your only choice for research partners. Check out resources in your own area. For example, in Ohio, where my company is located, we have strong research partners who aren't part of NNI programs: Kent State University works in liquid crystal displays, Akron University is strong in polymer-based material science and Case Western Reserve University at work with fuel cells.

And, in case you're wondering, your tax dollars are working hard for you in these programs. According to the NNI, nearly 2/3 of papers supporting recent nanotechnology patents have cited federal support for their research. So, get your nanotechnology product off the drawing board and on its way to commercialization. Uncle Sam wants to help!

Dr. Rickert Goes to Washington. I'll be joining other nanotechnology executives February 15 to 17 for a Public Policy Tour to Washington, D.C., coordinated by the NanoBusiness Alliance. We'll be meetings with representatives from all branches of the government on topics of nanotechnology globalization, research funding, commercialization needs, environmental standards and more. If you have thoughts you'd like me to share, feel free to email me. I'll report back on the tour in a later column.

Answering Your Questions:

Q: I'm interested in manufacturing applications and trends for environmentally friendly coatings as potential alternatives to heavy metals other toxic materials.

A: It's difficult to generalize to any specific application, but nanotechnology may well offer a replacement for the substances you mention. However, a first step may not be totally eliminating them, but greatly reducing their mass by blending nanoconcentrates of the material into a coating matrix. If the nanocentrate is produced properly, processing methods may need very little adjustment and could be easily incorporated into your current system, whether you spray, spin, brush or bake on your coating.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd., located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is nanotech@industryweek.com.

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