Nano's Big Future
Vol. 209, Num. 6
Nanotechnology is a tsunami that, having built up speed and power, is about to break; it is a revolution that will change every product and process, a change compared to which computers were “small change.” Well-known properties of familiar elements change at the nano-level, opening up surprises and entirely new applications. The US allocated one billion in 2005 and other countries likewise made proportional investments, hoping to get a head-start on what is a potentially one trillion dollar industry (the 2005 NSF prediction). Start-up costs are relatively low, so little less-capitalized countries and companies can join in. Carbon tubes and wires are especially promising -- they lend themselves to solar panels strengthening epoxies, lightweight materials, the replacement of old copper and aluminum power lines – but problems remain. First, fabrication of nanomaterials, especially using bottom-up methods, is complex. Second, while a few applications are moving forward fast, especially very sensitive cancer detectors, scientists have found that carbon-based buckyballs can cause some significant damage, unless manufactured with specific precautions. Two less problematic applications are water filtration to remove pollutants, and new methods for information storage. Some scientists argue that a larger proportion of government research money should be spent on safety research. Immediate-future applications include spoilage-sensitive food packaging and self-cleaning window glass. Kahn cites Richard Smalley of CalTech, Paul Alivisatos of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab Nanofabrication Center, Rice University grad student Andre Gobin, and Matteo Pasquale, also of Rice, Stephen Empedocles, VP of Nanosys, Jim Heath, a CalTech chemist, Ray Baughman of the Nanotech Institute at the University of Texas, and Jennifer West, bioengineer.