Nanotech funding already bearing fruit

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  April 30, 2002 at 4:30 PM
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ARLINGTON, Va., April 30 (UPI) -- Federal research and development spending on nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular scale, is already providing more than just a promise of future products, speakers said at a conference on the subject Tuesday.

The conference examined the results from the first full year of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, the U.S. government's focused effort to examine the world at the nano or a billionth of a meter scale -- a nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles.

The government's initiative funded about 2,000 programs last year, said Mikhail Roco, chief advisor on nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation. NSF is leading the nano effort, whose work is expected to lay the groundwork for a $1 trillion industry with more than two million workers, Roco told the conference. The White House's 2003 budget would devote more than $600 million to NNI activities.

"(Nanotech) is entering almost every major discipline of science," Roco said. "The (research) focus at this moment is horizontal, to bring synergies and tools from a discovery to many fields."

The field is not all studies and experiments, Roco reminded the audience. Innovations in fabrication and other areas already have cut in half projected timeframes for achieving commercial products, he said. Nanotech has reached the real world in some cases, he added -- the hard drives in today's personal computers utilize nanoscale elements to read the incredibly dense magnetic fields that hold data.

The military has also benefited from nanotech work, said Cliff Lau, deputy undersecretary of defense with the DOD's Office of Basic Research. Navy ships are using nanomaterial-based ceramics that were first formulated in 1996, he said.

"As far as warfighting goes, nanotech is even more important than the discovery of gunpowder," Lau said.

DOD's current slice of the NNI pie includes work on nanometer-scale oxide particles that, if incorporated into a soldier's uniform, could automatically neutralize chemical or biological agents, Lau said. Studying the properties of nano-scale particles of energetic materials is also expected to yield more powerful explosives and more efficient fuels, he noted.

Nanotechnology is proving so enticing that federal agencies have ended up spending about 10 percent more than they budgeted, especially among smaller agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Roco said. Global funding of nanotech research is expected to top $2 billion this year, he said, representing a fivefold increase since 1997.

Although NNI still amounts to less than 1 percent of federal R&D spending, it makes up about 30 percent of government investment in nanotech worldwide, Roco said. Japan is the overall leader with about $650 million in funding this year, and that figure could increase by 50 percent in the Diet's upcoming budget, he said.

"In other technologies, such as information technology and biotechnology, the United States has a leadership role," Roco said. "In 10 or 15 years that will change almost completely, because working at the nanoscale will change the paradigm in many technologies."

Education and training will play key roles in dealing with this change, Roco noted, and part of NNI addresses these areas. One of the initiative's 10-year goals is to give 50 percent of all U.S. students access to nanotech facilities, and to provide nanotech-related courses to 25 percent. Such long-range planning will be essential to create a coherent nanotech infrastructure and legislation currently being developed on Capitol Hill addresses this planning need, Roco said.

The basis of that infrastructure already exists in entities such as the National Nanofabrication Users Network, said Sandip Tiwari, director of both the network and Cornell University's Nanofabrication Facility. The NNUN gives researchers access to the advanced equipment needed to create nanostructures for study, often without the scientists having to leave home, he said.

"We can partition our tasks in such a way that provides complementary and common essential tool sets," Tiwari told the conference. "We learn from each other's mistakes and successes, and we can implement them rapidly because we're together in this."

Facilities at Howard University, Penn State, Stanford and the University of California at Santa Barbara make up the rest of the network, which supported about 1,100 graduate and undergraduate researchers in 2001, Tiwari said. Plans are underway to add centers and tie other government facilities into NNUN, depending on how NSF's portion of NNI funding is allocated, he said.

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