Nanotech as a Business Opportunity

by francine Hardaway on March 25, 2007

Here at the kickoff of the Arizona Nanotech Summit, the Mayor of Scottsdale is telling the audience that she knows nanotechnology will one day be understood by all. She’s sweet and well meaning, but it’s clear she doesn’t know yet what nanotech is all about and right now, she’s betting on the come.

But my friend Matt Kim of QuanTera, who chairs the Nanotechnology Cluster in Arizona, tells it all when he says next that nanotechnology is a magnifier. It takes things and enhances them. On his own web site you can see that he intends to use nano-engineered materials to enhance fiber optic networks.

When I went to Bronx Science, back in the day, science was about Newtonian physics. Then it was about quantum theory. Now it’s about wave theory. Who can keep up? It makes keeping up with information technology look like keeping up with the Simpsons.

But here’s a first pass: a nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Nanotech involves manipulating things that are small into new applications that weren’t possible before. The nanotech revolution was kicked off in the 80s with the discovery of the Buckyball, a carbon 60 molecule that won the Nobel Prize for the late Rick Smalley. A carbon nanotube is no more than a stretched out Buckyball, but it’s the strongest fiber possible, and it can conduct electricity better than copper with reduced power loss.

So it appears that nanotechnology, like semiconductor, is a building block that makes many other things possible – especially in energy and medicine. Although nanotech is primarily in the universities and the companies like Motorola and Intel right now, it will be in all our lives in the future. There are companies actually making nanotubes and going after applications for them.

Nanotubes are strong, they are lighter and stiffer than other materials and conduct electricity better, but they are hard to produce and handle. For industrial applications, these nanotubes can be delivered as paper or film.

At Rice University in Texas, where the impending oil crisis is well understood. scientists are taking a look at how nanotech could be used to support both conservation and transmission of energy.

In one particular application to energy conservation, lightweight nano materials could save us 70% of our energy costs in operating cars. A vehicle made with nano materials could be just as strong as a conventional car, weigh 50% less, and get much better gas mileage.

In another application, the solar energy industry could use photovoltaics to collect the sun’s energy and nanotubes could that be used to transport energy as electrons (sun) rather than as mass (oil). Whatever the winning source for new energy becomes, we could always conserve by renewing our infrastructure as a distributed system (like the Internet) for energy. Carbon nanotubes can be the building blocks of the new distributed network.

Nanotech is also fundamental to medicine, because scientists have seen that our body is actually made of DNA strands are actually nanotubes of two inches by six inches. We learned this when we developed the ability to look at molecules with a scanning tunneling microscope.

When the scanning tunneling microscope was discovered in the 80s, it allowed for the first time the imaging and manipulation of biological molecules. The tool made it possible to image and manipulate atoms better than an electron microscope. This, in turn, makes better diagnostics possible.

Being able to see the smallest components of our bodies will help bring about the era of personalized medicine.

And that’s because we are becoming able to see that the incredible diversity of the world’s population resides in only slight differences between people in certain protein levels. For example, 2 million people throughout the world have sickle cell anemia, which is caused by a very small difference in the hemoglobin of red blood cells. Sickle cell anemia makes its victims prone to all kinds of other infections, especially when they are babies. We can now screen for this disease in neonates at the molecular level using mass spectrometry. It’s screened for because it affects the immune system of babies and if it’s found, we can give them penicillin and prevent them from dying from opportunistic infections. That’s one way to reduce infant mortality.

For the adults among us, this research into the nano composition of our bodies has all kinds of ramifications.
People who have had heart attacks have different protein ratios. So we now know that there are biomarkers for heart attack. Really distinct patterns emerge from which it is possible to tell if a person is having a heart attack 98% of the time.

So it’s not for the science fiction idea that one day little nanobots will go through our bodies attacking diseased cells and curing our ills that we value nanotech. It’s for the applicationsthat are already possible using either nano materials or imaging devices capable of deciphering the nanotechnology of our own bodies.

Are you still following me? If not, and you just gazed over and skipped to the end, here’s the takeaway: you yourself are a bunch of nanotubes. “That’s all ye know on earth,and all ye need to know.” (One hundred lindens to the person who correctly identifies this quote without Googling it.)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Markman March 28, 2007 at 11:23 am


Thanks for the clear, patient intro. Truth is beauty. You can keep your Lindens.

Disclosure: I used Bartlett’s. Is that kosher? Oh, how I’ve fallen from my English Major roots. I’m ashamed. Must stop twittering and start reading poetry. Do I really need to know who is dropping off whom at the airport or what A-lister scored great seats to the Knicks? I do not. But I am trapped.

Mike April 12, 2007 at 9:29 am


The materials aspect of nanotech is interesting, but I’m holding out for Drexlerian molecular manufacturing (like the way our bodies work, as you point out).


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