Thursday, May 21, 2009

It Starts with Tape

Many years ago I interviewed for a job with 3M. At that time, I was certain that I was destined for fame and fortune in academia-- after all, I had the sport coat with the patches on the elbows. With my newly-minted Ph.D. in hand, I had the audacity to tell the interviewer that I was not interested in making tape. Needless to say, the interview was brief, and I was not offered a position with 3M. It took a few years of maturing for me to realize how arrogant and ill-informed I had been.

This story came to mind recently as I have been thinking and reading about commercialization of nanotechnology. A recent editorial in Nature Nanotechnology (Vol. 4, pg. 1, January, 2009) entitled “The Other Nanotech” discusses this issue. In particular, it is pointed out that 2007 was a milestone year in which corporate R&D spending for nanotechnology ($6.6 billion) surpassed that of government spending ($6.2 billion). All of these research dollars are not going solely to develop the complicated and expensive devices we are familiar with in university nanoscale research. Rather, much of this money is being spent on commercial applications of nanotechnology that are or will be household products.

The assortment of commercial nanotechnology applications are inventoried on a terrific website run by The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies which lists more than 800 products. The inventory includes the DeWalt power drill (available at Home Depot) which contains lithium iron phosphate nanocrystal batteries created by MIT-spinoff A123 Systems. This company was also mentioned this week in a story in the business section of the New York Times, where it was described that emerging U.S. automotive policy directed toward electric cars may speed the involvement of A123 in developing nanotechnology-based car batteries. However, interestingly, more than half of the products in the commercial nanotechnology inventory fall into the health and fitness category, which includes such items as cosmetics and sunscreens.

The important point here is that while industry is peddling “bulk nanotechnology” for seemingly mundane applications (the “other nanotech” of the editorial), they are funneling what they are learning about material properties, mass production, packaging, and stability into more high-tech and demanding applications in areas such as medicine, energy, and electronics. Even 3M currently has several nanotechnology products in areas such as dental restoratives and automotive window coatings. And you may have heard about the variety of academic and corporate labs developing adhesives based on the nanoscale structures found on gecko feet. I guess it all comes back to the tape.

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