Nanotechnology is a relatively new materials science that is slowly beginning to revolutionize many sectors of manufacturing. Few consumers or business executives realize the extent to which nanotech, over the mid-term, is going to change the materials they use everyday. As of 2013, so much progress has been made in nanotech research and development that commercialization is accelerating broadly. One factor boosting the adoption of nanotechnology is an increase in the manufacture and availability of carbon nanotubes, a basic nanomaterial that can be used in a wide variety of manufactured goods. These nanotubes have been shown to have highly valuable qualities, including incredible strength. As nanotube supplies increase and costs drop, use will increase significantly.
Investment in nanotechnology research and the market for nanotech products have expanded steadily. Analysts at Cientifica estimated that governments around the world spent $67.5 billion on nanotechnology between 2000 and 2011. Nanotechnology research and development in the U.S. in 2011 reached $2.18 billion. In China spending was $2.25 billion in purchasing power parity (PPP) dollars, exceeding the U.S. for the first time. (In real dollars, China spent about $1.3 billion.)
The U.S. government alone proposed $1.702 billion in nanotech research grants and projects for fiscal 2014, up from only $464 million in 2001. This budget aids the industry primarily through research grants made via the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. However, many other agencies receive research funding through this budget, including Homeland Security, Agriculture, NASA, the Department of Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency. This diversity of research interests is an excellent indicator of the fact that nanotech will eventually permeate virtually every segment of business, industry, transportation, food production and our daily lives.
Lux Research estimated that global sales of products containing some nanotech components would be $2.4 trillion in 2015. Nanotechnology is clearly coming of age.
The Japanese government is in the top ranks of nanotech funding, along with the U.S. Meanwhile, the European Nanotechnology Trade Alliance (ENTA) boosts the nanotech industry in Europe, where funding is very substantial, and Asian governments from China to Singapore to South Korea and Taiwan are big supporters as well.
Nanotechnology is generally defined as the science of designing, building or utilizing unique structures that are smaller than 100 nanometers in size (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). This involves microscopic structures that are no larger than the width of some cell membranes. A human hair is about 100,000 nanometers in width. In particular, nanotech may involve the manipulation of materials on the molecular or atomic level so that they take on new characteristics, such as increased strength or resistance. (“Nano” comes from a Greek word for dwarf or pygmy.)
Nanotechnology has applications in fields such as semiconductors, biotechnology, solar power, chemistry, automotive systems, apparel, coatings, robotics and aerospace. The result will be new ways to solve problems and create products based on the use of micro components.
Over the next few years, the fastest-growing commercialized uses of nanotechnology will most likely be in coatings, including advanced paints used in extreme environments; specialty chemicals; aerospace; electronics; pharmaceuticals and other health care technologies; and textiles. As the technology matures, many more uses will be commercialized.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (www.nanotechproject.org) listed more than 1,300 items in its 2012 inventory of consumer products that have a nanotech component, up from 475 in 2007 and 209 products listed in their initial March 2006 inventory. The list includes health and fitness items (such as cosmetics, sunscreens and sporting goods), food and beverage products, home and garden items and electronics and computer products.
MEMS, another branch of technology involving extreme miniaturization, refers to a very exciting field in microelectronics. Specifically, we define MEMS as “Micro Electro Mechanical Systems,” micron-scale structures that transduce signals between electronic and mechanical forms. Both MEMS and nanotech are today’s leaders in the long-term trend of greater and greater miniaturization of electronics and other systems.
Estimates of the size of the MEMS market vary. Analysts at research firm IHS, Inc. estimated the global market for MEMS devices at $12.2 billion for 2013, up significantly from $7.9 billion in 2011.
MEMS technology is widely utilized. A contemporary use of MEMS affecting consumers is the micro switch installed in passenger-side airbags in automobiles. These MEMS switches must be accurate enough to determine when, and at what level of strength, a collision occurs, and then set off the inflation of the air bag quickly enough to protect passengers before the collision’s impact reaches them.
Internet Research Tip: The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
1) An entertaining and highly informative “Learn about Nanotechnology” section.
2) Their “Inventories” lists of consumer products containing nanotechnology components and much more.
A continuing stream of advances in nanotechnology and carbon nanoscience is pouring forth from the world’s top universities and commercial laboratories. Firms that are deeply involved include IBM, which recently announced a potential breakthrough in using nanotech to destroy drug-resistant bacteria in human patients; Intel, which is using nanotech to dramatically increase the potential speed and power of microchips; and BASF, the world’s leading chemicals maker, which is relying on nanotech to dramatically increase the qualities of its specialty chemicals.
Soon enough, nanotechnology will enable the high capacity batteries that will power the electric automobiles of the near future, extend the shelf life of foods, enhance the targeted delivery of powerful drugs and create the ultradense computer memory needed for high speed computing. One of the more exciting developments is the recent discovery of graphene, an incredibly strong, thin carbon material that is the world’s best conductor of electricity.