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Nano is not yet a multitrillion dollar market, but applications are bursting previous bounds.
By Alan B Brown
Some things sound just too good to be true. It is easy to place nanotechnology in that category. Like many breakthroughs, from superconductivity to the Internet,nanotechnology bulldozed its way into the limelight with a long list of promises. It promised affordable solar cells, green chemisty, quantum computing, and lightweight composite aircraft, to say nothing of cell-size robots to clean plaque from our arteries and cancerous growths from our organs.
The hype did not stop there. In 2001, the National Science Foundation released a report, Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, which casually mentioned a $1 trillion market sometime in the first half of this decade.
Market researchers, never shy about pumping the virtues of a hot technology, went further. In 2004, Lux Research projected the nanotech value chain would reach $2.6 trillion in 2014, almost as large as information technology or telecommunications. Three years later, Cientifica upped the ante to $2.95 trillion, about half in semiconductors.
A 2010 report by Global Industry Analysts, San Jose, Calif., predicted a slightly more modest $2.4 trillion market within five years.
Such eye-popping numbers inspired startups. Entrepre
neurs argued that if they captured just a small fraction of
the total market, they could become huge. After all, a 0.1
percent share of a $2 trillion market equals $2 billion in
sales. Wall Street jumped on the bandwagon.
Yet those numbers had a flaw, and it was not just unbridled
optimism. According Michael Berger, the founder of the
popular nanotech website, Nanowerk.com, the definition of
“nano-enabled” was suspect.
In 2007, he found that a recent market study based its
projections on the value of final products rather than their
nanotech components. So if a $100 drug used 0.1 gram of
nanomaterial costing $1, the study tallied the full $100 in
its totals. Similarly, the $100 worth of nanomaterials in a
scratch-resistant auto topcoat was rung up as a $40,000
Even on Wall Street, that kind of accounting is a stretch.
So when milestones on the road to trillion dollar markets
failed to materialize, investors
backed off. The nanotechnology bubble
burst. Even businesses with promising technologies
and solid markets could not line up financing. Then came
the Great Recession.
Yet today, the nanotech scene is surprisingly upbeat.
“While Wall Street lost interest, researchers at companies
like IBM, DuPont, ExxonMobil, and Hewlett-Packard are
still working away,” said Steve Waite, a former Wall Street
nanotech analyst who co-founded Research 2.0, an invest
ment research service in Boston, Mass. He can point to
scores of nano startups with promising technologies.
“Over the last decade, everybody was asking, ‘Where is it?’
We’re just at the stage now where it’s going to start seeping
into everything. It is going to be part of the general technol
ogy landscape. The reason? It has taken a while to harness
nanotechnology and learn to create products,” Waite said.
One would expect Waite to be optimistic. His firm, after
all, makes money by touting nanotech investments. Yet
he can point to venture capitalist Harris & Harris, which
specializes in nanotech investments. Last year, it sold one
nano-enabled cancer drug maker, BioVex, to Amgen for
$425 million in cash and up to $575 million in additional
payments. It also launched two IPOs: NeoPhotonics, a
maker of photonic integrated circuits, for $82.5 million: and
Solazyme, which has modified algae to make oil and bioma
terials in fermenters, for $227 million.
He can also point to market studies that paint a more real
istic picture. Earlier this year, Global Industry Analysts Inc.,
which provides in-depth nanotech analysis, projected a $30
billion nanotech market by 2015, led by nanoscale thin films
used in electronics, solar cells, light-emitting diodes, pho
tonics, and wireless communications. Last year, the com
pany projected a $4.4 billion nanobiology industry in 2014,
chiefly for drugs to treat cancer, diabetes, heart disease,
neurological issues, orthopedic ailments, and other prob
lems. It also expects global demand for nanocomposites to
reach 1.3 billion pounds by 2015.
The Project on Emerging Nanotechologies, a joint project
of the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, and the Pew
Charitable Trusts, runs a database where manufacturers
can list nanotechnology-enabled consumer products. Its
offerings range from non-stick cookware to self-cleaning
window treatments. It lists more than 1,300 products, up
from 212 when it started in 2006.
In fact, nanotechnology may wind up looking a lot like the
Internet. The dot.com bubble that burst in 2000 spawned
thousands of companies. Many attracted funding with little
more than a business plan and a promise, and collapsed vir
tually overnight when the air went out of the bubble.
Yet the Internet did not go away. Some companies, such as
Google, Amazon, and eBay, lived up to early promises. Oth
ers resized their ambitions and became profitable purveyors
of everything from hotel rooms and computers to shoes and
pet supplies. Nearly every established company developed a
Moreover, the Internet continues to innovate. Google,
Facebook, and YouTube have created entirely new ways of
interacting. Smartphones have made those connections
mobile, in ways that would have been impossible to imagine
only 10 years ago.
Could nanotechnology trace a similar arc?
The New Nano
Vincent Caprio, executive director of the NanoBusi
ness Commercialization Association, is one of nano
V technology’s most ardent champions. Yet he avoids
calling it an industry.
Instead, like the Internet, he describes it as “a foundational
technology platform.” It is embedded in many industries, like
aerospace, electronics, transportation, and energy. I can’t
think of a major industry that it will not affect,” Caprio said.
He argues that businesses are using nanotechnology the
same way they use information technology to achieve com
petitive advantages across abroad range of business pro
cesses, from selling products and automating transactions
to optimizing production and managing logistics.
Nanotechnology has begun to cut an equally wide swath
in products. These range from downhole drilling and solar
energy to photonic circuits and drug delivery. Hewlett
Packard and Hynix Semiconductor plan to manufacture
the first computer memory to take advantage of nanoscale
“These companies all have different technologies that are
built around the science of nanotechnology” Caprio said.
“They all have different products, and they are all absorbed
into different industries.”
Nanotechnology’s successes are underreported because
successful startups rarely mention their nano roots, Caprio
added, sounding defensive. He points to Metabolon in Dur
ham, N.C, as an example.
Metabolon makes diagnostics to analyze cellular traces of
metabolic processes. The analysis can determine how drugs
and disease affect a specific patient, so physicians can optimize treatment for each individual. When Metabolon started out, it proclaimed its unique nanotechnolog Today, the word has vanished from its website.
Why? If Metabolon goes public, Caprio said, it will have to compete in a crowded financial marketplace. That means creating a simple story—it’s a medical diagnostics company with break
through technology—that it can sell to potential investors. Adding “nano” only makes the story more complex.
Besides, nanotechnology is not so easy to define. According to the
definition ased for the National Science Foundation R&D pro
gram, it involves working at the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular levels. That takes in scales of 1 to 100 nanometers. Often, such small structures have fundamentally different properties from larger structures of the same material.
By restructuring matter at the nanoscale, researchers can
take advantage of these unique effects, according to Mihail
Roco, NSF’s senior advisor for nanotechnology. The out
come could range from using the high surface activity of
nanoscale titanium dioxide to break down dirt on windows
catalytically to developing extremely small memory devices
based on atomic spin.
According to Roco, researchers created the interdisciplinary foundation for nanoscience during 2001 to 2010. They
learned to make indirect measurements, uncover empirical
correlations, understand individual scale-related phenom
ena, and create nanocomponents by empirical design.
This produced a flowering in the field. Roco estimates that
between 2000 and the end of 2010, the field’s primary work
force grew more than sixfold to 400,000 people. Scientific
papers quadrupled to 65,000. Patent applications rose an
order of magnitude to nearly 13,000. So did R&D funding, to
$14 billion. Venture capital investments rose sevenfold to
Roco believes the next step in development will involve
designing integrated nanosystems scientifically, rather than
by trial and error. Such systems could leverage new discov
eries in fields such as spintronics, plasmonics, metamateri
als, nanoelectronics, and nanobiomedicine.
The future may sound grand, but producing usable forms of the most basic commercial products such as nanoscale particles, has proven a long, hard slog. Take,for example, the experience of nanotube producer Southwest Nanotechnologies of Norman, Okia.
Carbon nanotubes have been the poster child for the promise of nanotechnology since they burstuponthe scene in the early 1990s. They have remarkable properties. They are from one to several orders of magnitude stronger and stiffer than steel or even Kevlar reinforcing fiber.
Nanotubes can range from semiconducting to superconducting. They are ten times more thermally conductive than copper, and have
1,000 times greater electrical current density They absorb microwaves, making them invisible to radar, and emit and detect light Researchers hope to use them to make electronic, photonic, and electro optical devices.
Yet progress in nanotubes has not come easily. They are difficult to produce. A two-story-high reactor typically produces hundreds of grams—not tons or even kilo grams—per day. They are often difficult to purify. While prices have dropped sharply from thousands of dollars, they still cost tens of dollars per gram today.
Southwest Nanotechnologies demonstrates how difficult
incremental progress has been. The company was spun out of
the University of Oklahoma 10 years ago to make single-wall
nanotubes. These are cylinders whose walls consist of highly
structured, one-atom-thick carbon arrays. They have far
better physical and electrooptical properties than more common multiwall nanotubes, but they are also more difficult to
Southwest started with a cobalt-molybdenum catalyst that
grows single wall nanotubes from carbon dioxide. Over the
years, it has boosted reaction speeds and lifted purity levels to
more than 90 percent. Equally important, it has shown it can
scale up to large reactors to drive down costs.
“In 2005, we were making 1 gram per day. Since we moved
into our new facility in the fall of 2008, we’ve become one of
the largest single-wall carbon nanotube manufacturers, mak
ing 800 to 1,000 grams per day:’ CEO David Arthur said.
Once Southwest scaled up production, Arthur discovered
another pressing reality: “Customers want solutions and convenience. They want something that is easy and safe to use:"
Safety has become a major hurdle for all nanomaterials.
Because they are so small, nanoparticles could easily go air
borne and slip through protective clothing, skin, and tissue
membranes, or interact with animals and plants in the environment. Southwest needed to show its products met evolving environmental, health, and safety standards.
The obvious solution is to disperse nanotubes in water or a
solvent so they cannot get into the air. Also, large manufacturers prefer to buy liquids because they are easy to disperse into the mixers and reactors they use to make their products.
Unfortunately, nanotubes have a strong attraction for
one another and not the water or solvent. They form large
clumps, which makes them difficult if not impossible to
use. Several companies that sell nanotubes for composite
reinforcements have resolved this problem by chemically
modifying nanotube surfaces to make them soluble. Others
Such solutions pose problems that Southwest tries to solve. Its V2V Ink was developed to print nanotube based circuits, including wires and electronic and photonic devices, using the same equipment used to print flexible electronic circuits on plastic
substrates. In these applications, a little nanotube goes a
long way. In fact, it takes 15 milligrams of nanotubes to coat a
square meter of surface. The coating is so thin, it is transpar
ent, Rick Jansen, Southwest’s vice president of sales, said.
Unfortunately, typical strategies used to disperse nano
tubes, such as modifying their surface or using surfactants,
also alter their electrical properties and introduce impurities.
While Jansen won’t discuss the combination of techniques
Southwest uses to disperse nanotubes, he does note that using high-viscosity molecules constrains the nanotubes and
keeps them apart.
Possible applications include solar cells, batteries, lighting,
and the electronic backplanes used in touch screen displays.
In fact, Southwest CEO David Arthur argues that printing
touch screen backplanes would cost 80 percent less than
producing them by conventional semiconductor deposition
methods. Companies are already buying V2V Ink, and Jansen
said that at least one company plans to incorporate it in its
Nanocomp Technologies of Concord, N.H., found a different
way to package nanotubes. It produces continuous strands of
multiwall nanotubes with lengths in the millimeters, orders
of magnitude longer than usual. The greater length improves
their physical and electrical properties. It also makes it pos
sible to spin them into strong, lightweight, electrically and
thermally conductive yarns, tapes, and sheets.
The U.S. Department of Defense recently contracted Nanocomp to expand output. It hopes to test Nanocomp’s yarns
and weaves in multifunctional composites, such as conduc
tive aircraft wings that can withstand directed energy weap
ons and stiff satellite structures that act as heat sinks.
Nanomaterials have achieved a degree of commercial suc
cess in coatings. Some coatings, like the ones used to protect
vehicles from scratching and pitting, contain dispersed ultrahard
Others rely on formation of nanoscale grains. Ordinarily,
any coating (or bulk metal or ceramic) will consist of pure
grains separated by channels of less pure material. These
interstices are usually more brittle and prone to corrosion
than the surrounding grains. As those grains shrink to the
nanoscale, though, the interstices become less significant and
the materials grow stronger, tougher, and more corrosion
Creating nanoscale grains throughout an ingot or other
bulk material is difficult. Forming them in thin coatings is far
easier. Many of these coatings consist of conventional metals
and ceramics, and are relatively economical to produce.
The results can be profound, explained Andy Sherman,
chief technology officer of Abakan. His Miami, Fla., firm
produces nanostructured metal and ceramic coatings.
“When it comes to wear and corrosion protection, you can
add nanotech into metals and make products that last a life
time,” he said.
That might be true for some applications, but not for the
components Abakan manufactures for its key markets, off
shore oil and gas wells, and tar sands refineries. These envi
ronments are highly corrosive. In the past, companies relied
on expensive exotic alloys or laser cladding, coupled with
conservative designs, to prevent failure.
Abakan uses a high-speed infrared fusing process licensed
from Oak Ridge National Laboratoryto produce nanocoat
ings. In tests with Brazilian oil company Petrobras, Ahakan’s
nanocoatings showed one-sixth as much corrosion an com
peting conventional coatings. The company coats pipe up
to 40 times faster than conventional laser cladding, and its
products cost significantly less than pipes of exotic alloys.
Other nanocoatings companies have taken similar paths to
commercialization. NanoSteel of Maitland, Fla., for example,
uses a process developed by Idaho National Engineering and
Environmental Laboratory to thermal spray hard, iron-based
coatings and weld overlays. Australia’s Alexium uses a cold
microwave process developed by the U.S. Air Force Research
Laboratory to protect textiles against flame, oil, water, acid,
and chemical and biological agents.
Nanomaterials have already begun to penetrate the
market. In addition to oil and gas components, nano
I structured coatings find application in industrial wear
parts. Several sporting goods companies use nanotubes as
composite reinforcements. Inorganic nanoparticles have been
used to prevent scratches in automotive coatings, block UV
radiation in suntan lotion, kill bacteria on surfaces and socks,
and catalyze reactions that break down grime on self-cleaning
windows. These are essentially evolutionary advances. They
simply make the coatings, lotions, and windows better.
Nanotech is also living up to at least some of its early hype,
creating entirely new products. Take, for example, drugs.
In 2005, the FDA approved the first nanodrug, Abraxane by
Abraxis BioScience, for metastatic breast cancer. Abraxane is
based on Taxol (paclitaxel), a well known breast cancer drug.
Because it is so difficult to dissolve, Taxol requires solvents
that have toxic side-effects.
Abraxis took a different route. It encapsulated Taxol in a
130 nanometer shell of the protein albumin. Not only is al
bumin water-soluble, but breast cancer activates a metabolic
pathway that absorbs albumin. The coating essentially tricks
the tumor into swallowing the medicine.
Since then, according to Roco at NSF, more than 50 cancer
targeting drugs based on nanotechnology have reached the
market. Meanwhile, other companies are investigating even
more sophisticated medical strategies.
NanoViricides of New Haven, Conn., shows what may be
coming next. It uses nanotechnology to bait a trap for viruses
ranging from seasonal flu to herpes and HIV. It does this by
creating molecules that mimic the receptors that viruses attach to on cell surfaces. The nanoviricide then wraps around
the virus, so it can no longer bond to cells, and eventually rips
it apart. The company is closing in on human testing for its
first new drug, which targets influenza.
Similar advances abound in the semiconductor world.
Intel, ADM, IBM, and other large computer processor and
memory manufacturers are already producing products with
32 nanometer features. This is evolutionary, producing faster
and more powerful PCs.
The revolution will be driven by entirely new types of devices that would be impossible with out nanoscale engineering. One is the memristor, short for “memory resistor.” it is a fundamentally new type of electrical circuitry that stores data through changes in electrical resistance. According to Hewlett-Packard senior fellow Stan Williams, running a voltage through a memristor moves a few atoms a fraction of a nanometer—and changes electrical
resistance by three orders of magnitude. This is difficult to
determine in large devices, but obvious at the nanoscale.
“This is a fundamental property of matter,” Williams said.
“It just doesn’t become useful until we’ve shrunk the device
down to the nanoscale.”
Memristors have many desirable attributes. They are simpler than transistors, and retain memory even without an electrical current. They work better as they grow smaller, and can be stacked in dense layers because they do not require constant electricity (which generates heat) to operate. Equally important, manufacturers can make them from conventional materials and integrate them with existing semiconductor technology
Last September, HP announced plans to team with South
Korea’s Hynix Semiconductor to manufacture memristor
memory. Williams expects Hynix to launch the first commercial memristors at the end of 2013. He also projects that they will ultimately cost significantly less than conventional transistor-based memory.
There are more nanotech innovations coming. Neophotonics, for example, is selling integrated photonic circuits on silicon chips.
They route and transmit data at the speed of light, much faster than conventional wired electronics. In the past, optical circuitry floundered because mirrors and gratings used to
manipulate light had to be at least as large as the wavelength of the light.
Neophotonics’ optical chips are among the first that use nanoscale devices that are smaller than these wavelengths to split and route light on a chip.
Bridgelux is manufacturing inexpensive LEDs that produce white light that rivals conventional incandescent light bulbs and last for years.
Stion and Alta Devices, two solar cell manufacturers that
lined up major funding in 2011, are using nanostructured
thin films to boost photovoltaic performance and slash costs.
This past March, Stion began shipping panels from its new
Hattiesburg, Miss., plant, which has capacity for 100 mega
watts of panels. Alta, which demonstrated a 23.5 percent
efficient solar panel at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, operates a 2 megawatt pilot line. Its flexible solar cells have drawn attention from the military, company president
Christopher Norris said.
Meanwhile, Siluria Technologies has raised $33 million to
commercialize a nanocatalyst that converts methane from
natural gas into fuels and chemicals ordinarily made from
oil, and does so at lower cost with fewer emissions.
These applications—many already commercialized, some
on the way—create new types of products and methodologies
that did not exist before. Just as Roco predicted, researchers
are applying their understanding of nanotechnology to create systems that are likely to have greater impacts.
Moreover, many manufacturers appear to have embraced
nanoscience. Two years ago, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences surveyed 270 manufacturers about their nanotech commercialization plans. One quarter had already commercialized products that used nanotechnology. Nearly four out often expected to have nano-based products by 2010, and seven out often by 2013.
This is exactly the type of growth Roco envisioned. Waite
agreed. “We’re at the beginning stages of exponential growth of nano-enabled product innovation,” he said. “It’s becoming the mainstream. The Fortune 500 and global companies—they’re going to have to use it. That’s where innovation is going to occur, at the molecular level.”
Waite ticked off some commercial possibilities, then paused after he mentioned more affordable solar cells. Then added: “We believe they’re going to become commonplace in 30 or 40 years. My children are going to grow up and ask,
"What’s a gas station?”.
November 2012 I MECHANICAL ENGINEERING 31
I would say things are looking up.