Monday, May 22, 2006

Collaboratively Capitalizing on Nanotechnology

Earlier this month, Lux Research issued the fourth edition of The Nanotech Report, which tracks market trends in the commercialization of nanotechnology. It reported that more than $32 billion in products using nanotechnology were sold in 2005, and that global R&D spending on nanotechnology reached $9.6 billion. The expectation is that this market will grow dramatically in the future, and the greatest benefit will go to those companies and regions where research breakthroughs are made.

"Nanotechnology" refers to products and processes that are based on molecules and materials that range from 1/10 of a nanometer to 100 nanometers in size. A nanometer is one-thousandth of a micrometer, one-millionth of a millimeter, or one-billionth of a meter. Decades ago, when technological advances were being made in "microelectronics," they were measured in micrometers, which is 1,000 times larger than the work now being done in nanotechnology. The smallest transistors currently made are less than 100 nanometers in size.

Nanotechnology represents the cutting edge of advanced materials research, and it is key to advances in everything from computer storage and chip manufacturing to medical devices. Nanotechnology is also being used to make improvements in "big" consumer products, such as automobile paints and coatings on windows that repel dirt.

The Pittsburgh Region has long been a leader in advanced materials research and production, both at the universities and at leading specialty chemicals and metals companies like Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, Bayer, Crucible, PPG, U.S. Steel, and others. In the future, nanotechnology will likely represent a key area of competition among companies in specialty materials industries. Unfortunately, none of the 70 leading nanotechnology companies profiled in the Lux Nanotech Report are based in the Pittsburgh Region.

However, in a unique collaborative effort, four of the largest advanced materials companies in the Pittsburgh Region -- Alcoa, Bayer, PPG, and U.S. Steel -- have joined together to form the Pennsylvania Nanomaterials Commercialization Center, which is designed to support applied research and commercialization of nanotechnology. Each of the companies is already pursuing nanotechnology research on its own -- for example, PPG is already making the nanotechnology-based automobile paints and self-cleaning windows referenced above, Bayer demonstrated its new nanotechnology products at the NanoTech conference in Tokyo in February, and Alcoa won a national award for one of its nanotech products. But much more can be achieved through a collaborative effort than individually.

Moreover, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are making major investments in nanotechnology facilities, equipment, and personnel in order to keep the Pittsburgh Region on the cutting edge of nanotechnology research. Last year, Pitt announced construction of a $6 million nanofabrication facility and a commitment to increase nanoscience and engineering faculty by 25%. Earlier this year, Pitt received a $5 million gift from John and Gertrude Peterson to support research in nanotechnology. Carnegie Mellon has also created a new Center for Nano-Enabled Devices and Energy Technologies. Both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, as well as Penn State, are participating in the Pennsylvania Nanomaterials Commercialization Center.

A national Commercialization of NanoMaterials conference will be held in Pittsburgh in September to help foster collaborations and commercialization in the nanotech area. But as noted earlier, the key is making the research breakthroughs that will lead to the new and improved products of the future.

Federal and state R&D funding will be critical to advancing nanotechnology research at the universities and the companies working in this area. The collaborative approach among the businesses and universities will likely result in greater advances than any one of them could achieve on their own, and the active involvement of the private businesses will help insure that research is directed to areas with the greatest probability of commercialization. But it is likely that a significant number of the discoveries will need to be commercialized through startup firms, even if the discoveries are made in the R&D facilities of the existing companies. In effect, some of the research will be a "public good," and public funding will be needed to support it.

The state has put a small amount of money into the PA Nanomaterials Commercialization Center, and there have been several nanotechnology research awards from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense. But much more will be needed. Obtaining this funding should be a priority for the region's Congressional delegation and state legislative delegation.


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