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.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Nano Everything

The American Chemical Society (ACS) runs a web site via its publications arm call ACS Nanotation. This site serves as a compendium of information and resources for the nanoscience and nanoengineering community. Journal article reviews, multimedia (images, video, podcast), career resources, calendar events and the like are all available in one convenient location.

One of the recent public relations/outreach activities of ACS Nanotation was a contest for the best video that answers the question “What is Nano?” The idea was to use creativity and humor, while maintaining scientific accuracy, to convey the significance and impact of nanotechnology to the YouTube generation. Videos were submitted and available for viewing during the first quarter of 2009, and the winners, selected by both a panel of judges (Critics’ Choice) and by popularity (People’s Choice), were announced earlier this week.

And the envelope please (with my comments added)...

Critics’ Choice and People’s Choice (1st Place): The Nano Song
Patrick Bennett, David Carlton, Molly Felz, Nola Klemfuss, Glory Liu, Ryan Miyakawa, Stacey Wallace, and Angelica Zen (University of California, Berkeley)
A musical number that made me think of Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Critics' Choice (2nd Place): Introduction to Nanotechnology
Dan Graham (Asemblon Inc.)
Remember those film strips from elementary school (at least in the 1970s)?

People’s Choice (2nd Place): Nanotechnology Brings us Delicious New Solar Cells
Blake Farrow (University of Notre Dame).
Kitchen (mostly) science with wry commentary.

Check these out at your leisure (and there is plenty more where these came from on the ACS Nanotation website). You might learn something, and, if nothing else, I promise you will be entertained.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The NanoFANS Forum

Last Friday was the third installment of the NanoFANS (Focusing on Advanced Nano-bio Systems) Forum , a biannual symposium for the nanoscience and nanotechnology community held at the Georgia Tech NRC. This was the first major event held in the conference facilities of the Marcus building, and it was a bit of a shakedown cruise as we learned the ins and outs of the new audio-visual systems. Nevertheless, it was an extremely well-attended event, with nearly 150 pre-registrations – a number that could not be accommodated in the space within the Pettit building. Credit and kudos to Paul Joseph, NRC Senior Research Scientist, who has organized this event since its inception in 2008.
The theme of the symposium was Cancer Nanotechnology, and the three speakers all touched on the use of nanomaterials for cancer diagnosis and treatment. Shuming Nie (GT and Emory School of Biomedical Engineering) is one of the pioneers in development and application of semiconductor quantum dots as fluorescent labels, and he discussed their tunability using size, composition, and strain. QDs have progressed steadily over the past 10 years through in vitro cellular studies and in vivo animal studies, and human applications appear just around the corner. John McDonald (GT School of Biology) represents the successful collaboration between cancer biology and nanoscience through his work with Andrew Lyon on nanohydrogels for siRNA delivery and John Zhang on magnetic nanoparticles for capture of metastatic cells. Finally, Mostafa El-Sayed (GT Chemistry and Biochemistry) explained the unique electronic properties of nano-gold which are promising for spectroscopic and thermal generation applications in cancer detection and therapy.

If you missed this NanoFANS event, you will be able to find the talks on SMARTech , the library’s archive, when they are posted (along with the previous presentations). However, if you are interested at all in the intersection of nanotechnology and the life sciences, I recommend you not miss NanoFANS when it returns in the fall.