Nanotechnology - a technology that creates small materials at the scale of molecules by manipulating single atoms - holds big promises for the future. Many believe nanotech research will lead the way to advances in electronics, materials, energy, and pharmaceuticals. Those promises bring financial rewards by the way of economic development, university research funding, and commercial profits.
The practical applications on the market today - for example, using nanotech in the automotive industry for chip-resistant paint, better tires on cars, and advanced coatings and paints - don't often match the publicity campaigns. Nonetheless, so great is nanotech's commercial potential that the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Lux Research estimate that the worldwide market for nanotechnology-enabled products will exceed $1 trillion by 2015.
It's no wonder so many cities and states are chasing after cluster status. But experts say while many regions are emerging with universities that focus on nanotech and even startups that are spinning out of academia, there are only a few global nanotech hubs. That may be changing, though. Still a nascent industry compared to other sciences, experts say, like biotechnology in years past, nanotechnology's day is coming.
"So many companies - and investors - have overhyped nanotech," says Joe Romano, partner at HighGround, Inc., a business consultancy in Woburn, Massachusetts. "However, when one looks at HP, Hitachi, and other massive global firms who have collectively, and quietly, spent billions of dollars developing and using nanotech, someone has to admit to the fact that this is not a phenomenon that will go away."
New York: A Hotbed
The federal government has six NSF-designated Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers. Three of them are in New York - Columbia University in New York City, Cornell University in Ithaca, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. And Albany, the state capital, is as close as there is currently to a nanotech hotbed. The Center of Excellence at the University of Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) is home to scientists from 250 companies, including IBM, Toshiba, Sony, and AMD. The center has built one of the most advanced nanotech research complexes in the world.
"Albany is definitely one of the top three nanotech clusters in the world. The others are in Japan and Belgium," says Jim Singer, a partner at A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm. "There is a legacy of high-end engineering in Albany that lent itself to nanotechnology," In August, IBM and its joint development partners - AMD, Freescale, STMicroelectronics, Toshiba, and the CNSE - announced the first working static random access memory (SRAM) for the 22-nanometer technology node. SRAM chips are precursors to more complex devices such as microprocessors. T.C. Chen, Ph.D., vice president of science and technology at IBM Research, calls the development a "critical achievement."
Building in Boston
Boston is an undisputed leader in biotech - but what about nanotech? Harvard University in Cambridge is home to one of the six NSF-designated nanotech centers, and nanotechnology is already spinning out of the institution. In August, Oxford Nanopore announced it gained rights to commercialize several of Harvard's nanopore technological breakthroughs that offer potential for DNA sequencing. Harvard has also licensed a portfolio of more than 50 pending patents of nano- and micro-scale molecular fabrication methods to Cambridge-based Nano-Terra.
Meanwhile, the NSF-funded Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN) at Boston's Northeastern University - in partnership with UMass Lowell and University of New Hampshire - has developed a technique to scale up the nanotech assembly process. CHN is also working on such technologies as nano-biochips to detect and treat cancer and other diseases; thin, lightweight and fast-charging batteries with a longer life than current batteries; flexible PDAs and phones; and flexible lightweight solar collectors that can power homes. According to Ahmed Busnaina, Ph.D., the CHN's director, some of these technologies could be available as soon as the next three to five years.
Texas and Illinois Carve Niches
Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, is also home to one of the six NSF-designated centers. Instead of using a flat microchip as the light sensor for their new camera, engineers from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern have developed a sensor that is a flexible mesh of wire-connected pixels. "This research is truly transformative," says Ken Chong, advisor in the National NSF Engineering Directorate, who is one of the officers overseeing the researchers' NSF grant. "Using simple mechanics principles, the researchers have produced, for the first time, electronic devices on a hemispherical surface so that they can take images much like those captured by the human eye."
Houston is already one of the world's largest semiconductor and computer company hubs, making it a strong match for nanotech innovation. That's because nanotech is the essential science underpinning the $250 billion worldwide semiconductor industry. Since the current generation of chips will soon be obsolete, the semiconductor industry is investing heavily in new technologies to replace today's semiconductors. Houston's Rice University is the sixth NSF-designated center. "Rice University's research is cutting-edge, and they're always one step ahead of the rest of the market in research and development for what's hot," says Romano. He points to Rice's work with tiny nanoparticles of metal and carbon that can trap oil droplets in water.
Other Emerging Standouts
• Scientists in the University of California at San Diego's (UCSD) nanoengineering department recently created experimental solar cells spiked with nanowires that could lead to highly efficient thin-film solar cells, and identified a way to target chemotherapy to achieve a profound impact on metastasis in pancreatic and kidney cancer in mice with nanoparticles.
• Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) announced in May that they have created a substance stronger and harder than iron that maintains its strength even under extremely high temperatures. They also discovered that adding tiny bits of gold to a failed HIV drug, TAK-779, rekindles the drug's ability to stop the virus from invading the body's immune system. "There's no reason to think that this same process can't be used with similar effect on other existing drugs," says Christian Melander, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry at NCSU.
• Iowa State University scientists are using nanotech to penetrate plant cell walls and simultaneously deliver a gene and chemical that triggers its expression with controlled precision.
• At University of Connecticut, Fotios Papadimitrakopoulos, Ph.D., professor of chemistry, and his graduate students found a way for a biological molecule, a form of vitamin B2, to wrap around a single-walled carbon nanotube. This could have broad applicability in drug and gene delivery, electronic devices and nanotech research.
• MemPro Ceramics Corp. in Copper Mountain, Colorado, received a $500,000 NSF grant in July to advance its new class of catalytic filters. The filters are based on pollution-control technology developed at The University of Akron. "The technology enables small amounts of catalysts to clean exhaust streams and could lead to low-cost catalytic converters," says John Finley, MemPro president and CEO.
Nanotech interests large and small face similar challenges - attracting talent, fighting the publicity machine, and dealing with environmental groups. There is so much hype in the market that if you come out with something real, the market hardly believes it can be true, according to Romano. "The PR machine has been blowing smoke in the press about carbon nanotubes that have been around for quite some time," he says. "This is hardly a story anymore."
What is a story is when environmental groups get vocal about their belief that nano-materials are bad for the environment and the industry needs better testing. "The bad press cycle seems to run its course and go away, so companies just need to sit tight through it," says Marlene Bourne, president and principal analyst of Bourne Research in Scottsdale, Arizona. "It's important to have good testing and data, so being in a world-class nanotech research area helps."
For all the publicity highs and lows, the key challenge for these nanotech hubs and emerging clusters is talent. "This is a very specific subsector of engineering and material science and it demands well-educated and motivated people," says Singer. "The supply is nowhere near the demand for these positions. If you are a company doing research in this area, you are probably better off locating in or near one of the world class centers instead of trying to blaze a trail in the wilderness because it will be easier to recruit talent."
So the universities and companies - and by affiliation, the locations - that can attract the top talent may ultimately become the big winners in the nanotech race.