A year ago I asked: why Nanotech was not yet the projected world changing technology? I answered: ‘there are deficiencies in the scale up technology and business models so far employed.” Interestingly this year we seem to be making progress in that key deficiency … reliably scaling up nanotech to useful sizes. What do we know now that we didn’t understand 14 years ago when the first NNI was passed or even last year?
After 14 years of $1 Billion+/year in US Government investment and over twice as much by the private sector, we do not … I repeat… we do not have a “killer” product (like a killer app) based on Nanotechnology or incorporating significant nanotech that couldn’t have been achieved in a more conventional way. No uniquely nanotechnology company business model has been created on which to build economic wealth. After more than a decade, one should be apparent.
The promise of nanotech was always to create or assemble what nature didn’t supply us for the benefit of civilization. That process… new stuff for the benefit of mankind … has barely occurred… despite billions of dollars already spent.
That seems to be changing. At the risk of hubric punditry, the next few years will see such technological products, economic changes and a business model with which investors will feel confident. Maybe these “next few years” nanotech developments finally will be life revolutionizing – maybe even incredibly lucrative for perceptive founders and investors. It seems that the dream of riches from nanotech … the payoff for all this extraordinary investment, is still alive… only delayed.
It is a maxim of those of us who teach technological applications, change and innovation to grad students and seasoned executives that it takes more than a decade (maybe two) for fundamental breakthroughs in core technology to appear in revolutionary and practical ways within the mass of the developed world economy. Nanotech seems to be following that pattern.
Over the last decade… and accelerating lately … worldwide we’ve developed amazing nanoscience. We’ve put together in the lab and in the university unique compounds that are reduced in size or created from nanotechnology building blocks to perform functions with incremental characteristics, sensitivities and accuracies before unavailable. We’ve uncovered ways to protect or change coatings on macro sized manufactured things to improve performances. Using nanoscience techniques, we’ve begun to re orient medicine toward diagnostics and preventive medicine as opposed to the symptoms treating medicine of the past century. Nanotech has made ‘green’ possible. Nanotech has made 3 D printing of materials possible. New nanosize geometries and Nano containing liquids are changing the ways in which energy is stored with huge increases in energy storage densities at ever reducing costs/kw. Materials have been modified at the Nano level to produce amazingly useful electronic and physical product improvements. All this is good but not sufficient.
One of the difficulties encountered has been to find a way to scale up wondrous single developments to useful macro size. Nanotech just doesn’t scale well, making the scaling up of breakthroughs in nanoscience to macro (usable) sizes almost as difficult and expensive as the cost of the original nanoscience or nanotech development breakthroughs. Nano-pros have failed to find ways to reproduce nanoscience breakthroughs reliably with repeated high technological performance and continuous integrity to macro size manufacturing specs. Truthfully, there hasn’t been enough investment money devoted to this part of the nanotech development story. Moreover, it’s not sufficient just to scale the Nano part of a development. Economically, the entire system containing the nanotech breakthrough has to be scaled… and technically, systems scaling is very difficult. It’s been an expensive and hard lesson to learn.
The mass of much lionized nanotubes, both single and multiple wall, form in a spaghetti-like mixed breed mess. This “mess’ is useless product wise. The nanotubes have to be separated by type, separated from each other, and then oriented for use in a higher-level system. Not only is this process difficult to accomplish reliably but it also is expensive changing some of the economic promise of nanotube applications. Nanotubes are projected as the ‘next connectors’ in semiconductors. IBM literally has to cut grooves in substrates to orient their nanotube connectors properly for testing and for prototype use. It admits the grooves are not a solution and are searching for other ways to build nanotube-connected chips for use in its semiconductor applications.
Another area of promise in trouble is the multifunctional-targeted nanoparticle for use in anti cancer and anti human health condition solutions. Others and I have touted these developments as opening new thresholds in medical treatment with reduced collateral damage. In animal models and in vitro, the particles are amazingly effective … targeting and eliminating the bad stuff while inducing little ‘collateral’ damage.
However, what occurs when such ‘breakthroughs’ are introduced in the human body to improve our health as programmed is not identical. In vivo, multifunctional particles tend to clump, not be evenly distributed and tend not to target only the sick cells… and far more than in the models… attach to normal cells with adverse consequences. These are some of the reasons you don’t find the FDA approving many of the numerous approaches to multifunctional medical particles for trials in human use. They don’t work as programmed and those who have invested in the promise of the original tests have taken large financial baths … sometime losing their entire investment as the company goes bankrupt. It is far too long after the original articles in 2005 for there not to be an entire slew of these particles as products making us feel better.
Now, a more difficult issue: The economics of nanotechnology. I have written about this subject here repeatedly. Nanotech occurs at the lowest level of the value chain. There is no economic margin inherent in the development of a nanotech breakthrough. All nanotech breakthroughs have to be incorporated in a product or system upstream in the value chain or no economic reason for further development will manifest.
Sometimes, companies have to find ‘cost avoidance’ reasons for developing a nanotech-using product. A specific example is a company called Genomic Research… which developed a product that isolated a family of genes in a certain group of post operation breast cancer patients who could avoid expensive radiotherapy because the data showed that the radiotherapy was ineffective in preventing recurrence of the cancer. The savings in insurance costs were successfully used to justify the economics of the Genomic Research DNA tests so that Genomic Research has current sales in excess of $400,000,000. A true success story. The lesson here is that with a nanotech-based product, the economic justification can come from outside the nanotech industry … few and far between.
What seems to be changing? The original promise of nanotech called for self reproducing compounds that would automatically scale up and because they were self cloning insure that quality remained constant during the scale up and ultimate manufacture. Recently, researchers of scale up processes have shown that combining a new compound with certain forms of DNA allow not only for movement of the compound, but also for self reproduction… so the process of Nano self reproduction is very close to realization.
The other issue… separation of similar Nano forms, that too seems to be on the verge of solution. The solution seems to be to separate the compounds in solution. Placing the mix of nanoparticles into a properly ionized or PH’d or constructed solution for that compound has recently shown promise to purify and separate the mess that comes out of Nano manufacture.
A last example is what is happening with modified bacteria. Making Nano stuff in bacterial soup with zillions of mini factories seems an ideal scale up solution. Until recently, organic only reproduced organic. But Langer’s lab at MIT spun off a company that genetically modified bacteria to produce inorganic stuff in large quantities in soups containing raw elements. I’ll cover this company in a later article.
In conclusion there are now production system semi breakthroughs that hold promise to solve the scale up dilemma. I’ll detail those next month.
Alan B. Shalleck