What do you get when you mix chemistry, biology, physics, and computing? Something small, and huge.
Peter KrassFebruary 25, 2004

Floor tiles that clean themselves. Military uniforms that automatically contract to prevent a wound from bleeding. Beams stronger than steel but lighter than plastic. Sounds like science fiction, but these are real innovations, thanks to the emerging field known as nanotechnology.

What It Is

Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating individual atoms and molecules to create materials, devices, and systems with enhanced physical properties. Current research in nanotechnology is being done to enhance existing products; for example, to strengthen steel or make medicines dissolve more quickly in the bloodstream.

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Nanotechnology refers not only to a science but also related processes, tools, and commercial products. While much of the work involves developments that won’t see daylight for a decade or more, such companies as Toyota, Eddie Bauer, and Wilson Sporting Goods already sell items that incorporate nanotech for extra strength, stain resistance, and bounce. Helping both ends are nanotech-tool companies such as Woodbury, New York­based Veeco Instruments, which builds nanomicroscopes used to measure and move individual atoms. “We refer to our products as the industry’s picks and shovels,” says CFO Jack Rein.

How It Works

The term nanotechnology is derived from the prefix nano-, meaning one billionth. A nanometer, therefore, is one billionth of a meter, and nanotech is generally agreed to involve materials smaller than 100 nanometers, or a thousand times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. Nanoparticles are so small, in fact, that the normal laws of physics—including gravity—are eclipsed by so-called quantum laws. One current barrier to nanotech is that these quantum laws are not fully understood.

To create nanotech materials and products, which may include computers and other forms of IT, scientists and engineers use special instruments, tools, and computer systems to measure and manipulate nanotech particles, essentially reengineering matter at the atomic level to suit a given purpose. IBM, for example, built a new type of computer circuit by manipulating carbon monoxide molecules on a copper surface.

Why You Should Care

Nanotech may affect your company in ways far beyond the data center or desktop. Industry experts believe it promises to revolutionize most industries, including biotech, fabrics and clothing, plastics, packaging, cosmetics, defense, energy, telecom, and transportation. Credit Suisse First Boston even says nanotech’s impact could be as wide-reaching as the steam engine, electricity, and railroads.

Already, huge amounts of capital and man power are being plowed into nanotech. More than 700 companies worldwide are working on the technology, and in the United States, tens of thousands of scientists are working on it. Total R&D spending on nanotech-related projects is forecast to reach nearly $4 billion this year.

Right now nanotech is rooted in the lab. This summer researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said they had developed a nanotech device that can dissipate the substantial heat produced by laptop computers. The miniaturization inherent in nanotech is expected to lead to vastly more-powerful microchips, smaller computers, huge advances in computer memory and data storage, and a raft of computer-based devices, particularly in medicine. Nanotech “computers” (of a sort) may even be embedded in food containers, so your nearly empty carton of orange juice can alert the shopping list on your PDA that it’s time to stock up.

What 2004 Will Bring

Along with scientific breakthroughs, expect controversy. Critics worry most about nanoparticles, patents, and advanced nanotech. Nanoparticles could, some say, create health and environmental problems. Patents are said to be too broad or granted improperly—an estimated 2,800 nanotech-related patent applications have been filed in the past six years. Advanced nanotech, critics say, could increase the gap between the rich and the poor, erode personal privacy, and damage the environment. Another concern: nanotech-enabled weapons and uniforms could fall into the hands of terrorists.

“There are issues here, and we need them resolved,” says Christine Peterson, president of the Foresight Institute, a Palo Alto, California, nonprofit organization that has issued general guidelines that deal with safety and ethics, among other things, in the development and design of nanotech.

Another worried group: nanotech investors. So far the returns have been nothing like those of the early days of the Internet, the technology with which nanotech’s potential is most commonly compared. Yet some remain sanguine.

“This technology is really just getting started,” says Peter Hébert, cofounder and managing partner at Lux Capital. “We’re quite confident that this will be the next boom.” With the National Science Foundation predicting that nanotech sales could hit $1 trillion by 2015, many others are thinking that way, too. Expect a raft of news stories that begin: “Good things come in small packages—very small.”