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U.S. leads in nanotech investment

We're in a nano space race and doing well, says a research company. But Asia may be catching up.

The U.S. is putting more money into nanotechnology than other countries, according to a new report, but this is no time to get cocky.

Government agencies in the United States poured $1.6 billion into nanotechnology research in 2004, far more than Japan's $1.0 billion, according to Lux Research, which studies the industry.

The private sector in the United States is also leading in the field. Of the $3.8 billion invested by private-sector groups worldwide, $1.7 billion came from U.S.-based companies, Lux said. A large percentage of the nano patents being issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are going to U.S. companies, too.

But the report warns that the rest of the world is not that far behind and interest is strong.

"Although the U.S. puts more government funding to work on nanotech research than any other country on an absolute basis, it has already fallen behind Asian competitors on a relative basis," Matthew Nordan, vice president of research at Lux, wrote in the report.

"On this basis," he added, "the U.S. invested $5.42 per capita on government spending on nanotechnology last year, exceeded by South Korea at $5.62, Japan at $6.30 and Taiwan at $9.40."

Nordan testified Wednesday before the research subcommittee of the House Committee on Science. (Click here for a PDF of material he presented.)

The research and investments undertaken by Asian companies and governments generally have a practical bent. Taiwan is concentrating on magnetoresistive RAM, a concept IBM is also tinkering with, the report notes. Magnetoresistive RAM offers a way of recording data bits using magnetic charges instead of electrical charges.

South Korea, meanwhile, has filed patents for computer displays and TVs that use carbon nanotubes to light screens. Samsung has shown prototypes of these screens.

Lux recommends that U.S. states and the federal government invest more in nanotech projects that could lead to practical products.

Nanotechnology is the science of developing products out of components or designer molecules measuring 100 nanometers or less. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.) Why 100 nanometers? At these dimensions, matter begins to exhibit different characteristics. Aluminum explodes on contact with the air, for example, while carbon can become a one-dimensional object that conducts electricity better than copper.

Scientists are still in the basic research stage of characterizing the properties of various nano molecules, which also means that potential dangers need to be sounded out, according to many.

Researchers at Rice University and Georgia Tech, for instance, recently discovered that buckyballs, soccer-ball-shaped molecules each made of 60 carbon atoms, clump together in water and then dissolve in it. This, conceivably, represents a possible danger because it uncovers a hithero unknown mechanism for transmission of these molecules. Buckyballs can also inhibit the growth of some types of soil bacteria, a factor that could turn out to be beneficial or harmful.

Despite some potential health risks, many national governments, particularly in developed countries, believe the industry could become one of the major drivers of economic growth.

"In order for advanced countries to survive, they realize they need to increase the value of their products," Ezio Andreta, director of nanotechnology for the European Commission, said at a conference recently.