By Leigh Howe

“There’s plenty of room at the bottom” – physicist Richard Feynman, 1959.   The beginnings of nanotechnology occurred as early as 1959 but wouldn’t become an accepted scientific pursuit until the 1980’s.  Nanotechnology is the art of manipulating matter at the atomic scale to create new technologies – in effect, the ability to build things from the atom up.  It crosses many disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology, and even computer sciences. 

Small players.  Today, nanotechnology has evolved from a strictly academic pursuit and has drawn much interest from large corporations, such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM.  In 2000, the federal government launched its National Nanotechnology Initiative, which will provide almost $520 million in funding this year.  Along with a surge in nanotech patent filing in the last two years, more than thirty universities in the United States have announced plans for nanotech research centers.  Cientifica’s “Nanotechnology Opportunity Report” says the 470 nanotechnology companies are evenly distributed throughout North America, Asia, and Europe.  However, Japan, Germany, and the United States are taking the lead according to the report. 

Hot air vs. hot technology.  Nanotechnology seems to be part science fiction and part potential business blockbuster.   Already, research points to revolutionary advances in materials, pharmaceuticals, computing, and information technology.  The potential seems unending and articles mention of using nanotech to provide clean water, reduce toxic emissions, cure disease, and prevent aging.  More realistic first applications of nanotech include:  nanocomposites – making everyday objects lighter and stronger with applications in aerospace and automotive industries; nanotubes – leading to better, cheaper versions of computer processors, memory, and displays;  buckyballs – 60 carbon atoms that form a sphere and could be conductors, semiconductors, or drug-carrying capsules; and a commercial fuel.   

What and when.  Samsung has plans to have a carbon-nanotube-based flat-panel display commercially available as early as December 2003.  Some 20 companies are ramping up for mass productions of buckyballs.  A commercial fuel based on nanotechnology could be available in two to three years.  Major impacts on the aerospace industry through nanotechnology are forecasted for 3 to 7 years out.   Nanotechnology will have a deep effect across a number of different industries, but many more-advanced applications will be 10 to 15 years before realization.

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