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Nanotechnology: A New Industrial Revolution?

Oct/Nov 09
Whether they're aware of it or not, many industries are in the midst of a nanotechnology boom. From the medical industry and renewable energy to plastic products and electronics, nanotechnology is improving a wide array of consumer goods and promises to usher in the next wave of industrial production. According to the research and advisory firm Lux Research, the global market for goods based on nanotechnology is expected to grow from $147 billion now to $3.1 trillion in 2015. All across the United States, nanotech is growing strong with the help of universities, startups, and local government.

Small But Growing Industries
Nanotechnology spans a wide array of industries and is often defined by different measures. One of the most commonly used definitions is that of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which defines it as the understanding, control, and manipulation of matter at dimensions between 1 and 100 nanometers - keep in mind that one inch equals 25,400,000 nanometers. Nanotechnology has allowed the transformation of aerospace, agriculture, biotech, national defense, energy, medicine, and transportation, and it is currently being used in everything from batteries and solar panels to eyeglasses, baseball bats, tennis rackets and cameras. By altering the states of the elements and materials, nanotechnology can help make products stronger, lighter, and more durable.

A recent report by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) highlighted more than 1,200 companies, universities, government laboratories, and other organizations involved in nanotech research, development, and commercialization. The number is up 50 percent from the 800 organizations identified just two years ago. The report also identified the top three sectors for companies working in nanotech as materials, tools, and medicine. "There is now not a single state without organizations involved in this cutting-edge field., "says David Rejeski, PEN director.

Emerging Geographic Clusters
According to Sean Murdock, executive chairman of the NanoBusiness Alliance, nanotech development tends to mimic that of biotech and occurs around metro areas with world-class research facilities. He says that as many corporations have shut down their internal research and development labs, they have relied on universities and startups to act as incubators.

"Nanotech tends to develop around metropolitan areas with world-class research facilities," says Murdock. "A lot of it has to do with the changed structure of innovation and corporate investment in R&D and we anticipate rapid growth [in many of the clusters]." The map of nanotech activity created by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies shows development centered around major universities Massachusetts and California, have traditionally served as the centers of nanotech, but new technologies are developing in other states.

North Carolina: The Research Triangle near Raleigh, North Carolina, has been recognized as a burgeoning spot for nanotech and recently moved up into the top five locations, displacing Oakland, California. Not long after the National Nanotech Initiative started in 2005, the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology (NCBST), an organization that identifies and helps develop important technologies for the state, began tracking the development of nanotech and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of nanotech in North Carolina. It identified 69 companies working in nanotechnology that spanned industries from biotechnology to chemicals, coatings and materials.

"There might be other companies out there; it's not like the have billboards identifying themselves as nanotech companies.," says John W. Hardin, the NCBST's executive director. "We learn about them through word of mouth, searches, and other interactions with high-tech companies. I would say we are very early on in the whole nanotech economic development sector."

New York: More than 600 miles north in Albany, New York, partnerships between universities, private enterprise, and local governments have also led to a burgeoning nanotech sector. The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the State University of New York at Albany is one of the only colleges in the world dedicated to nanotechnology, and this year it announced the first comprehensive undergrad program in nanoscale science. The college is the anchor tenant at the Albany Nanotech Complex, an 800,000-square-foot conglomeration of facilities that features research labs office space and support systems for corporate partners such as IBM, Applied Materials, TEL, and International SEMATECH. In less than a decade, the complex has grown from a work force of 72 to more than 2,500 scientists, researchers, engineers, faculty and staff that are helping propel nanotech throughout the region.

In 2006, Vistec Lithography, a developer and manufacturer of advanced lithography equipment for the semiconductor industry, moved its global headquarters from Cambridge, England, to Watervliet, New York. Bringing more than 130 high-tech jobs to the community, it also invested more than $125 million in the Arsenal Campus in Watervliet. This past July, there was a groundbreaking in the town of Malta, New York, for a new tech center in "Tech Valley" at the Luther Forest Technology Campus. The $4.2 billion microchip fabrication plant will be one of the most advanced chip fabrication plants in the world and will create 1,400 high-tech jobs and 5,000 indirect jobs in the region.

Colorado: A number of Colorado communities have seen rapid growth of nanotechnology in recent years. According to the Colorado Nanotechnology Alliance (CNA), the state has more than 75 companies working in nanotechnology that employ 19,000 workers with an average annual salary of $55,720. CNA Executive Chairman Griffith Kundahl says that Colorado has a number of assets attractive to nanotech operations, including a highly educated work force, a good capital community, and a culture and history of supporting high-tech industries.

One example of a prominent nanotech company operating in Colorado is Zettacore. Founded by scientists from the University of California, Riverside and North Carolina State University along with business executives, the company creates next-generation molecular memory for the semiconductor industry. Headquartered in Englewood, the company recently raised $21 million in Series C financing. Other companies in the state operating in the nanotech spectrum include Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Inovonics Wireless Corporation, Lucid Dimensions, LLC, and Ball Aerospace.

Ongoing Health and Safety Research
While nanotechnology offers many promises, some say there are potential downsides and safety concerns. Nanoparticles and nanomaterials are now found in a variety of products from sunscreen to cookware, and in 2008, a critical report by the National Research Council said that the federal government was not doing enough to analyze and identify potential environmental and health risks. Todd Kuiken, Ph. D., a research associate with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, says that once materials are broken down on a nano scale, they pose potential risks that do not appear at the macroscale. "We tend to argue that not enough money is being spent on environmental health and safety research to look at the properties of nano materials," he says. "There isn't one particular area that is more dangerous than the other, but questions need to be asked as these products enter the market."

Nanotechnology could pose potential risks not only for product users themselves, but for the communities where they are developed - and the federal government is taking a stronger interest. H.R. 554, the National Nanotechnology Initiatives Act of 2009, passed the house in February 2009 and is going for vote in the Senate in the coming months. The bill aims to strengthen and provide transparency to the federal research effort, and requires agencies participating in the National Nanotechnolgy Initiative to develop a plan for environmental safety and research. The bill also sets out to leverage private sector investments in nanotech by strengthening public and private partnerships.

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