Nanotechnology: Beyond the Hype

Oct. 14, 2010
Nanotechnology can make things lighter, stronger or more efficient, but can it really revolutionize industries such as medicine or energy?

Six minutes is all Rice University music professor and composer Anthony Brandt needs to perform an entire symphony from tuning session to intermission and encore. Brandt created what he calls a "nano symphony," using nanotechnology as a model for his composition. To achieve this, Brandt altered single notes in a way similar to how rearranging atoms can change the chemical composition of a molecule.

The merger of music and science was part of a special event Oct. 10 celebrating the discovery of the buckyball 25 years ago. The buckyball is the nickname for the buckminsterfullerene molecule introduced in 1985 by Rice University professors Robert Curl and since-deceased Richard Smalley along with Harold Kroto, who was a professor at the University of Sussex in England at the time. The three professors received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for their discovery. The buckyball is significant because it led to a host of developments that became known as nanotechnology. Since the buckyball's discovery, nanomaterials have been incorporated into products across many industries, particularly the chemicals and semiconductor sectors.

But has nanotechnology advanced as quickly as once anticipated? The National Science Foundation predicted in 2000 that sales of nano-related products would reach $1 trillion by 2015. Such hype can create unrealistic expectations regarding nanotechnology and help generate a backlash that deters funding or investor interest, according to a report published in July by market research firm BCC Research.

Molecular-level manufacturing is one of the nanotechnology areas that initially created a buzz but is still at least 10 years away from becoming reality, says Lauralyn McDaniel, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers' product-development manager. Molecular-level manufacturing involves creating molecularly precise products and components from the "bottom-up" by manipulating atoms. So far, most nano-related developments have resulted in incremental improvements to products rather than the creation of revolutionary advances, says Michael Holman, research director at Lux Research Inc. He cites the high cost of nanomaterials as a major challenge in nano-related developments.

The magnified image shows BASFs new generation of foams with a cell size no longer in micro but in nanometer size. The foams are being developed to provide improved insulating properties compared to established insulating fabrics.Another issue that's created much uncertainty is the rising tide of environmental and health concerns regarding nanotechnology. Federal, state and global regulatory agencies are still grappling with how to classify and regulate nanomaterials. Researchers and manufacturers have complained that EPA and some state agencies are taking an unfair one-size-fits-all approach to regulating nanotechnology, creating unnecessary testing and registration burdens for companies.

"These nanotech firms, which have popped up over the last 10 years or so, live on venture-capital money to do their R&D," says John DiLoreto, publisher of the NanoReg Report. "But there has to be a point at which their products move to the marketplace, and that's where the problem comes because venture capitalists don't want to pay a researcher to do toxicology studies."

The fallout from overhyping any new development can be disastrous. Just look at the boom and bust of the late 1990s, authors of the BCC report note. But the BCC study, titled "Nanotechnology: A Realistic Market Assessment," notes that nanotechnology is less likely to follow the fate of dot.coms because of its more tangible nature. Still, more than 40% of Society of Manufacturing Engineer's members and customers said in a survey this year they know little about nanotechnology, says McDaniel. But she says more universities appear to be developing nanotechnology programs and that interest in the field is beginning to ramp up again.

Though much more modest than the 2000 NSF report, BCC Research predicts the use of nanotechnology in products will expand at a compound annual growth rate of 11% through 2015. The estimated global market for nanotechnology products in 2005 was $9.4 billion. By 2009 the nanotechnology market reached an estimated $11.7 billion in sales. In another five years nano-related products are expected to generate sales of $26 billion.

University research and start-ups have garnered much of the attention for their efforts in nanotechnology developments, but larger manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin Corp., BASF and 3M, have quietly incorporated nanomaterials into some of their products and R&D efforts.

Nano in Chemicals

Most widespread implementations are occurring in the chemicals industry where nanoparticles are used as catalysts. Approximately 40% of the catalysts used in the chemicals industry for applications such as converting petroleum into specialty or bulk chemicals are nano-designed or nano-structured, says Wade Adams, director of Rice University's Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. In the next 10 years that figure is expected to reach 70%, he says. Nanoparticles are popular in the chemicals business because nano-sizing materials creates a greater surface area, a critical component of catalytic activity.

Chemicals manufacturer BASF has been active in developing nanomaterials to improve properties of existing products, such as coatings, paints, plastics and sunscreens. One of the company's more recent nano-based products is X-Seed, a hardening accelerator for concrete. X-Seed contains synthetically produced crystal seeds in liquid form, which the company says can double the hardening properties of the concrete mix.

A model of the buckminsterfullerene, or buckyball. In October Rice University celebrated the 25th anniversary of the buckyballs discovery, which helped jump-start nanotechnology research and development.Between 2006 and 2008 the company budgeted 180 million euros, or approximately $251 million, in nanotechnology research. But research in the past was primarily devoted to identifying the basic principles that BASF currently uses to develop nano-based products, says Rudiger Iden, BASF's nanotechnology spokesman. One example of this would be the analysis techniques that enable the company to make nanodimensions visible. Now that nanotechnology has progressed as a cross-technology used in many products across the company, there is no longer a way to place a figure on nano-related investment, Iden says.

The company considers nanotechnology to be a key driver of future innovation, says Iden. The primary opportunities for advancing nano growth at BASF exist in nano-finished intermediates and composites. "With nanotechnology, we can achieve effects and develop products that would not be possible any other way," Iden says.

BASF is engaged in some research projects the company says could yield major improvements in energy efficiency. They include the development of structures with nanometer-sized pores organized in the form of cubes that are capable of storing hydrogen and other high-energy gases. The main application would be as a rechargeable storage medium for miniature fuel cells and as a potential replacement for conventional rechargeable batteries in mobile electronic equipment. The company also is looking at nanoporous foams that feature improved insulating properties over established insulating fabrics and organic light-emitting diodes that don't produce heat when they generate light.

Medical Breakthroughs

Adams predicts improved light-emitting diodes will be one of several major nano-related breakthroughs in the coming years. But the area where nanotechnology could have the most significant impact is the health-care industry, he says. Researchers and start-ups are developing sensors and detectors that could someday diagnose serious health conditions, such as a heart attack or cancer, within minutes, Adams says.

Rice announced in April that a pilot study showed diagnostic "nano-bio-chips" can be effective in detecting patients with malignant or premalignant lesions. The technique is said to be considerably less invasive than traditional diagnosis methods and can deliver results within 15 minutes instead of the several days it would take a lab to produce results. The nano-bio-chips are small, semiconductor-based devices that can analyze biomarkers for various health issues, including cardiac disease, HIV and trauma injuries.

With a swab from the inside of a patient's cheek, an emergency medical technician could analyze the sample with a detector that utilizes nanoparticles that are sensitive to biological markers that the body produces as a defense mechanism. "This ability to recognize disease using nanotechnology combined with microtechnology and the incredible systems biology is going to revolutionize how we do medicine, and diseases are going to be able to be detected at the earliest possible onset," Adams says. Adequate venture funding and the FDA approval process are the two major hurdles the technology must overcome before it's commercially available, Adams says. The device is undergoing a more extensive trial with 500 patients in Texas and England that could lead to an application for FDA approval in two to four years, according to Rice researchers.

In this picture BASF demonstrates its nanotechnology-based engineering plastic Ultradur High Speed. The high-speed variant of the Ultradur product features a number of enhanced properties, including improved flow that can reduce cycle times.Nanotechnology has already found its way into dental applications. 3M Co. developed dental restoratives that utilize nanocomposites to create smoother fillings. The company introduced the product in 2002, and it has become a growth driver for 3M's dental products business, says 3M corporate scientist Bill Schultz. Conventional restoratives are strong but they can feel rough even, with polishing. Since the nanoparticles are 100 times smaller than traditional fillings, they're 100 times smoother without losing strength. The particles also provide color-matching capabilities because they're smaller than a wavelength of light, making them transparent.

Nano Takes Flight

Aerospace and defense contractor Lockheed Martin is exploring the use of nanotechnology to create composite materials for applications ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites to wind-turbine blades, says Jon Rambeau, Lockheed's vice president for Technology Transition in Corporate Engineering and Technology.

Nanotechnology will play a significant role in aerospace manufacturing because of the "expanding demand for multifunctional materials in the industry," Rambeau says. A material that only provides structural support is not adequate because adding coatings to provide additional functionality is expensive, and the current materials are heavy. "The demand is for materials that act as not only the structure but also provide lightning-strike protection, electromagnetic interference shielding capability and structural health monitoring functionality," Rambeau says.

Lockheed Martin and Rice partnered to create the Lockheed Martin Advanced Nanotechnology Center of Excellence at Rice, or LANCER. As of mid-October, Rice was wrapping up eight projects with Lockheed Martin and is in the process of conducting basic research on new possibilities, says Rice's Adams. Lockheed will hold the licenses for the applications and will either develop them internally or transfer them to one of the company's suppliers, Adams says.

One of the applications under development utilizes nanotechnology to create an uncooled infrared detector on a satellite that can detect threats such as a missile launch, Adams says. An uncooled sensor saves weight because the satellite does not have to carry a cryogenic cooler, Adams says.

Such developments could result in major advancements for the aerospace industry, but Lockheed's Rambeau cautions that nanotechnology presents some obstacles that must be overcome to enable its acceptance, one of which is cost.

"These materials need to be produced in large quantities and at competitive prices, so continued development must focus on commercializing viable nanomaterial production processes," he says. The materials also need to be approved for use in the aerospace industry, which can take years to achieve, Rambeau says.

See Also:
• Buckyball Comes of Age

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Former Managing Editor

Former Managing Editor Jon Katz covered leadership and strategy, tackling subjects such as lean manufacturing leadership, strategy development and deployment, corporate culture, corporate social responsibility, and growth strategies. As well, he provided news and analysis of successful companies in the chemical and energy industries, including oil and gas, renewable and alternative.

Jon worked as an intern for IndustryWeek before serving as a reporter for The Morning Journal and then as an associate editor for Penton Media’s Supply Chain Technology News.

Jon received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Kent State University and is a die-hard Cleveland sports fan.

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