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For disruptive technologies, look to material sciences

Lux Research president Matthew Nordan says that nanotechnology and related material sciences is the source for new technologies, economic growth and solutions to environmental problems.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Society-impacting technological change will increasingly come from physical sciences, such as chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering, rather than information technologies, said Matthew Nordan, the president of nanotechnology research firm Lux Research.

Nanotech at work.

Nordan on Monday provided an overview of nanotechnology at the firm's annual conference here, arguing that material sciences will fuel technological development and economic growth in the coming years in much the way that information sciences did in the last 20 years.

These hard sciences are also critical to addressing the global problems of providing fresh water to billions of people worldwide, as well as energy to growing economies.

Nanotechnology deals with very small-scale materials--a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide.

A wide range of industries are already using nanotechnology in everything from consumer skin care products to golf balls. By designing custom materials, product manufacturers can create new pharmaceuticals or surfaces that are harder, yet lighter.

Nordan pointed out a few examples where nanotechnology can play a disruptive role in the economy.

The Boeing 787 plane has 15 percent titanium in its body because the material is lighter than other metals. But the worldwide supply of titanium will not be able to meet the projected orders of Boeing's planes, Nordan said.

Instead, new materials using nanotechnology are being developed, and that has significant implications for titanium suppliers and its customers.

Nordan showed off a ping pong ball covered in a nano-nickel material engineered by Integran Defense Systems. He smashed the ball between two pieces of wood with a hammer and wasn't able to dent it.

This material, which is cheaper than titanium, could be worth tens of billions of dollars, he said.

Taking a look at the global economy, Nordan said nanotechnologies are set to play an integral role in economic growth and environmental sustainability.

He argued that material sciences in fields such as chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering are increasingly the source for new technologies that fuel worker productivity and job creation.

In energy, solar photovoltaic companies are using nanotechnology to improve the efficiency of solar cells. The blades on wind turbines, meanwhile, can be covered with water-resistant material to prevent ice from forming, which slows down power generation.

Because of rising energy demand, companies with expertise in materials will increasingly make energy applications, such as large-scale storage.

"No one of these energy technologies will be required--all of them will be," Nordan said.

Water is another area where nanotechnology can be brought to bear with great impact. Companies such as Nano H20 developing membranes that act as filters to clean water.

Nordan showed off the application of nanotechnology in water purification. He had a bowl of water he got from a local pond and drank it through a straw-shaped water filter. Called LifeStraw, the filter is designed for the developing world where lack of access to clean water is a huge health problem.

"Access to water and energy have sparked wars in the past. There are big implications if we don't develop alternatives," he said.