Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Investment in nanotech anything but small

The Nano Science and Technology Institute's Nanotech 2004 trade show reveals that the U.S. government, among others, expects to spend billions on nanotech research in coming years.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
BOSTON--Nanotechnology is already a billion-dollar industry, and it's barely out of the lab.

The U.S. government plans to plow nearly $1 billion into nanotech research during fiscal 2004, and it'll add $3.7 billion more between fiscal 2005 and 2008, said Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordinator Office, a government department that facilitates cooperation between academic researchers, corporations and other government offices.

"Our federal government is committed to the promise of nanotechnology...without compromises to the public health," Teague said during a speech Monday at the Nano Science and Technology Institute's Nanotech 2004 trade show here. "With all that support, (the government and lawmakers) are really looking to this field to be a major contributor to our economy over the coming years."

Nanotech 2004 provided a venue for various scientists, business executives and government officials to wax enthusiastic about the relatively new science, which involves working at the atomic or molecular level in order to understand, create and control new structures and devices. Because of their diminutive stature, these devices or materials boast unheard-of properties, which could be used to improve devices like solar panels or microchips. Keynote speakers at the confab said nanotech holds the potential to improve a wide range of industries, such as computers, energy and health care, and to create entire industries itself.

Teague said that of the United States' $127 billion research and development budget for 2004, about $961 million will go to nanotechnology projects. That's not a huge figure, but it represents a 107 percent increase from 2001, Teague said. Meanwhile, the additional $3.7 billion will come from the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, signed by President Bush in January.

Japan and the European Union are each making similar investments of their own, Teague estimated. On Monday, the European Commission, part of the European Union, said it would put 24 million euros, or almost $30 million, into developing new chip-manufacturing processes, enhanced by nanotechnology. And corporations won't be far behind. Collectively, they'll direct at least the same amount, if not more, to nanotechnology research as a result of the nanotech research and development legislation. Even U.S. states will get into the act, putting $200 million to $300 million toward the technology yearly, Teague said.

Funding the future
By offering up their funds, governments and corporations are all seeking to reap the potential economic, national defense and health benefits of the new industry. Nanotech could bolster computers by creating new materials geared toward building ever faster processors or by creating tiny sensors that can collect data in new ways and distribute it instantly, using wireless networking. This could help industries such as retail or manufacturing react more quickly to customer needs or make it easier to monitor the environment, assist elderly people in their homes or help monitor the environment, said David Tennenhouse, director of research at Intel.

Strictly speaking, chipmakers already make chips with features measuring less than 100 nanometers, one definition of nanotechnology. However, Intel and others are looking at ways to incorporate futuristic materials with unique properties, which many consider to be the true test of nanotechnology. Nanowires and other new materials may enter the picture sometime between 2013 and 2019, Tennenhouse said.

That means, Tennenhouse said, that "it's really time to get focused on new...devices. There isn't really a lot of time to get the research done."

One company, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Nanosys, is working to license its version of nanowires, tiny strings of silicon atoms. The structures could be used as transistors in processors or as components in medical testing equipment that are designed to indicate when certain types of cancers are present in a person's body, said Charles Lieber, the company's founder.

Other promising nanostructures are ="5075103">carbon nanotubes, made from a lattice of carbon atoms. Researchers at IBM have already used carbon nanotubes as transistors in some chip experiments and used them to emit light in other tests. Nanowires can also emit light.

Still, a huge amount of work will be required to take nanotechnology from the lab to the production line. The U.S. government will put many of its research and development grants toward pure research in nanotechnology. Some money will go to putting it into practice, Teague said.

Although companies such as Intel will work on applying the technology to products, Tennenhouse also said on Monday that universities may be missing out on some development funds that could help speed the transition.

University projects in the areas of applied research, computer systems and network research have been underfunded of late. Now could thus be the time to review universities' roles in research and increase their applied-research funding. After all, applied research is the discipline that will test nanotechnologies in the real world, Tennenhouse said.