I might be an old dog, but I honestly try to learn new tricks or at least something new every day. And the more I learn, the more I realize that I really don’t know much of anything. Now some people would say that confirmation that you are dumb is actually pretty smart. I am not going to give myself such credit.
I do know this much — the advances we are making in science and technology can easily put me in a state of shock and awe.
Such has been the case this past week as I have been working on a story for Site Selection magazine on nanotechnology, which I have learned is here to stay and potentially a game changer for so many industries.
No doubt you have heard the term “nanotechnology” before, but let’s go over it again so that you, too, can speak with authority on a subject that you know absolutely nothing about. Now if you can do this with a straight face, you, too can become a consultant.
Hold on for the Ride
First thing you should know is that we’re talking small. I mean really, really small. Nanotechnology involves the creation and manipulation of particles at the nanoscale, that is, particles that range in size from 1 to 1,000 nanometers (nm), where 1 nm equals
1 billionth of a meter. If you are like me, trying to understand that fact alone is challenging.
So now we are at the point where we can actually make new materials at the nanoscale – nanoparticles and nanomaterials. It usually entails, at least initially, a smattering of PhDs in the room, most of whom should have foreign-sounding names.
New techniques in nanomaterials growth and nanoelectronics currently appear in the microprocessor powering your computer. Tiny transistors with insulators just one nanometer thick and lengths of just about 20 nanometers are currently in production. Leveraging these tiny size scales allows incredibly large numbers of devices to be integrated on a chip, and permits them to operate faster than their predecessors.
Companies have realized the potential of nanotechnology and are researching, designing and building new products all the time. So the very small translates to very big business. The National Science Foundation expects nanotechnology to be a $1 trillion industry
by the year 2015, with the potential to revolutionize fields ranging from health care to manufacturing. General Electric is developing nanoparticles to treat cancer and heart disease.
“Nanotechnology is where it’s at,” says Darrell Brookstein, managing director of Nanotechnology.com, an online news and information source for nanoscience and nanotechnology. Brookstein also runs The Nanotechnology Company in San Diego, Calif., which helps investors and businesses involved in nanotech. “All of the industries that everyone is familiar with: alternative energy, solar, green technology, drug manufacturers, computer technology, advanced materials, specialty chemicals — all of these things are advanced from now on by nanotechnology.”
Nanoparticles are currently used in hundreds of products on supermarket shelves. This new technology is prevalent in nutritional additives, stronger flavorings and colorings, and antibacterial agents for food packaging and kitchenware. And that spooks some
Itsy Bitsy and Some Say Risky
Earlier this month, “leading experts” – I don’t know who they are leading but I trust they must have some sort of following – gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, for a policy forum titled “Nanotechnology: the Huge Challenge of Regulating Tiny Technologies.”
I think it would be safe to say that these experts were probably of the opinion that nanoparticles could pose a danger, and thus a guiding hand from government is needed. (It is my belief, for what it’s worth, that nanotechnology, which entails actually making
something, represents a far lesser risk than Wall Street speculators, who make nothing but came within an eyelash of taking this country down. But I digress.)
Scott E. Rickert, the CEO of Nanofilm, Ltd, in Valley View, Ohio, says we are currently living in a period of fear and paranoia, sparked by the recession. He said the polymer industry faced corresponding challenges on to environmental safety in the 1970s, but is now widely accepted.
“We are going through right now a anti-technology, anti-materials backlash in the United States and Europe as well,” Rickert said. “People are asking if nanomaterials are safe and this is to be expected in a recession. But once people are confident that the recession is finally over, they will start to appreciate the development of nanomaterials.”
Connecting Business and Science
We are already past the tipping point, Rickert said. Nanotechnology is here to stay, as it has entered into a second foundational phase that will see a ten-fold increase in the value of nano-enabled products.
As of March 30, 2011, the NanoBusiness Alliance got a new identity and became the NanoBusiness Commercialization Association, signaling the industry’s commitment to a more direct connection between science and business.
Now instead of only labs and researchers, manufacturers are also looking for answers. And virtually every trade show now features nano products.
Rickert said his company, which develops and manufactures nanotech films andcoatings, serves as a “technology scout” with a business model that typically partners with larger companies that do not have research capabilities in nanotechnology but yet still want nano-enabled products.
“Companies like ours fill a niche. There are companies that are formulated like us who will come in and work with universities and learn what they are doing and then translate it into a product. That seems to work well with our partner model — we find the value that can then be sold through a bigger company. So we don’t have or want a huge sales force. On the other hand, they don’t have what we have.”
Nanofilm has patented formulations and commercialized thin film coatings for use in optics, transportation, energy, housewares and other industries, but it has never been able to break into the bio-medical field until recently. It happened with the announced a partnership with SDG, Inc., a spinoff from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
SDG has commercialized nanomaterials to be carriers for drug molecules for therapeutic treatments as well as diagnostic imaging agents, nutraceutical ingredients, and consumer products, including fragrances, conditioners, and sunscreens.
Rickert said future nano products may be born by the simply having the research staffs of both companies work closely together.
“We at Nanofilm didn’t have the medical research staff, as we are more of the polymer materials engineering and science. But these guys at SDG do and that’s all they do. And so when we put our research people with theirs, suddenly, our people are thinking about
medical issues, and their people are thinking along the lines of polymer people, and we’re developing some pretty innovative stuff.”
Innovative stuff. And that’s what nanotechnology is really all about. Converging physics, chemistry, electronics, biology, chemistry and materials science to come up with ways on how to build a better mousetrap … or ray gun.
Some day, we might see automobiles made of super-strong, ultra-light material that is stronger than steel and lighter than plastic. Some day, nano-particles released into the bloodstream will search and destroy cancer cells throughout the body, to which Gomer Pyle would say “Shazam!”
Yep, like my dear old pappy always used to say – it’s hard to keep a good man down when he is working with individually controlled trapped atoms.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Red Oak, Texas — www.barberadvisors.com