Nanotechnology deals with, in Gingrich's words, "the world between one and 400 atoms," manipulating matter at the molecular level. It promises revolutionary advances in many fields, including medicine and computing.
"If you can begin to learn self-assembly at the nano level, the reduction in energy (needed) and the reduction in waste products will lead to the largest breakthrough in environmental quality in the history of the human race," Gingrich said.
In talking to the American Cancer Society on Wednesday, Gingrich said, he learned that medical experts believe nanotechnology can defeat cancer within a generation. Government researchers have defined about 70 projects in many fields where nanotech work is already progressing, he said. But instead of focusing on any one application, he said, people should take the time to see what the science has to offer as a whole.
"Try to understand the basics because if you do, you can apply it everywhere," Gingrich said. "Whatever your specialty is, simply start asking the question, 'If I could do with this at a very, very small level ... how would it change things?' and you'll suddenly have people coming in with rich new ideas."
Gingrich expects to devote several hours a week, about 5 percent of his time, to advising the alliance on its development. He will also look at the need for possible legislative changes and spread the word about nanotech among policy leaders in Washington and elsewhere. The chairmanship is one part in his ongoing push to triple overall U.S. funding in basic research and science education, he said.
Meyya Meyyapan, director of NASA's Ames Center for Nanotechnology at Moffett Field, Calif., and a member of the alliance's board of advisors, said Gingrich has been a longtime supporter of the field, and his chairmanship should help accelerate the technology's move into the business arena.
That migration is underway, said Mark Modzelewski, the alliance's executive director -- total public- and private-sector nanotech investments next year should top $1 billion, he said. There probably won't be a Silicon Valley-like epicenter for nanoindustry, he said, since universities and other groups are working on projects in sites scattered across the United States and the rest of the world.
Gingrich said people shouldn't equate nanotech's promises with the hyperbole that surrounded the dot-com boom and bust over the past couple of years. The field is full of solid work being developed by mainstream researchers, and the real-world applications and business plans are being carefully constructed. As with any startup field, many ventures will fail, he said, but in the coming decades, several of the most well-known companies will be nanotechnology-related.