Just 16 years after an IBM scientist first manipulated atoms to spell the company logo, Rice University scientist James M. Tour built a car, complete with chassis, axles and rotating “buckyball” wheels, out of a single carbon molecule. Twenty thousand of the tiny vehicles could be lined up across the width of a single human hair.
Tiny devices may have real-world uses. Scientists are working toward applications such as tiny solar cells that can be embedded in roofing tiles or mixed into house paint, implantable systems that monitor drug levels in the bloodstream and nanoscale semiconductors that could open the way to infinitely more powerful computers.
Small is Big
Nanotech in Texas
A scientific and technological revolution promises to produce the biggest changes in our daily lives since the rise of computer technology.
The revolution is nanotechnology, which is expected to have a trillion-dollar impact on the world economy within a few years. And Texas is in the forefront of the research and development needed to fulfill its promise.
Nanotech is not a single science or engineering discipline, but an approach that involves – and is changing – many fields of knowledge. According to Rice University, a world leader in the field, nanotech involves understanding, manipulating and building structures from individual atoms and molecules – structures in the range of one to 1,000 nanometers in size. A nanometer is one-billonth of a meter; a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide.
From Atoms to Products
Items produced with nanotechnology are already on store shelves. According to the National Nanotech Initiative (NNI), a collaborative effort among federal agencies, about $60 billion to $70 billion worth of such products are sold in the United States each year, and the numbers are rising quickly.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies estimates that by 2014, nanotechnology will be incorporated in about $2.6 trillion in manufactured goods – about 15 percent of the global economy.
Current products incorporating nanomaterials include things from computer hard drives to bandages. But more important breakthroughs are on their way.
Scientists at Rice and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center are developing a way to attack cancer by putting a payload of anticancer drugs into buckyballs and embedding them in antibodies that target cancer cells. Such methods could treat cancer without the debilitating effects of conventional chemotherapy.
“Nanotechnology is pervasive – it will improve so many things,” says Kelly Kordzik, president of the Texas Nanotechnology Initiative, an industry consortium.
“The computer world is going to have to rely on nanotechnology to get to the next level, to keep getting faster, smaller and cheaper computers,” he says. “With nanotech, we can engineer solar cells to be more efficient. It will enable batteries to be more efficient and more powerful, and will [make] hydrogen fuel cells viable.”
Big Bucks for Tiny Discoveries
Cutting-edge research into nanotechnology is expensive. “To get a leading-edge electron microscope these days can cost $15 million or $16 million,” says Walt Trybula, director of the Nanomaterials Application Center (NAC) at Texas State University-San Marcos. “The cost of the tools, as they get more precise, goes up significantly.”
But governments and private industries around the world believe the investment is worthwhile. According to NNI, U.S. federal funding for nanotech research has risen from $464 million in 2001 to more than $1 billion in 2006.
In Texas, Rice’s Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology continues to hold the leading position in nanotech research. A 2007 assessment in the industry publication Small Times placed Rice among the world’s top 10 university nanotech programs in five of eight categories.
Very Light and Very Tough
One project at Texas State University’s Nanomaterials Application Center concerns a nano-enhanced substance. “It’s an improvement in bulletproof enhancement – the first, really, since the ‘60s,” says Walt Trybula, the center’s director. “It’s 40 percent stronger than the existing polycarbonate materials and 10 percent lighter, and we figure in volume [production], it’s 5 to 10 percent cheaper. We’re in competition [to provide] the windshields on the Marines’ Cobra helicopter.” The substance has some other interesting properties. “If you scratch it, or pound on it with a hammer and deform it, you can heat it with a heat gun and it goes back to its original shape,” says Trybula.
Out of the Lab
Moving from research to the marketplace can be difficult. The Nanotechnology Foundation of Texas reports that at least 30 Texas companies are working on products and services based on nanotech research, but most are still in the development stage.
“It’s only just about now that engineering is starting to take over, and people are trying to convert the science into actual products,” Kordzik says.
The state’s Emerging Technology Fund (ETF) can provide valuable support for projects that promise medical or scientific breakthroughs or are likely to lead to high-quality new jobs. The ETF received $200 million for fiscal 2006 and 2007, and according to Kordzik, about 30 percent of its funding has gone to nanotech-related companies.
“Five years ago, our state was not engaged,” Kordzik says. “Now agencies in the federal government look at Texas and say, ‘Man, you guys have got it goin’ on.’ They see in us a huge amount of cooperation between big companies, small companies, universities and state government. They see that we really are working together as a team.” FN