Electronic Design

Funding For Nanotechnology Skyrockets

Nanotechnology analysts are sometimes overly optimistic. They often paint a rosy picture of a technology with a potential for stratospheric market figures of tens and hundreds of billions of dollars. Potential markets for nanotechnology are obviously huge, but it's much too early to get an accurate measure of market size.

Part of the problem is the way that many in the field perceive nanotechnology, preferring to define it as anything with feature sizes of 100 nm or less. The top-down approach of semiconductor manufacturing of ICs is mixed in with the bottom-up approach of work on the atomic and molecular scale to build useful structures. All of this falls under the nanotechnology banner.

"Nanotechnology is certainly well into the process of emerging from the lab to becoming a commercial reality," says Roger Grace, president of Roger Grace Associates and of the Micro and Nanotechnology Commercialization Education Foundation (MANCEF). "I recently spoke at a National Science Foundation (NSF) conference on nanotechnology manufacturing issues, where a number of the other speakers presented what product their company had in production, including General Motors with some of its body structural components."

The NSF classifies nanotechnology under a number of subcategories, from traditional semiconductor devices to atomic and molecular devices and materials. The NSF foresees a trillion-dollar market for nanotechnology by 2015.

Notwithstanding the lack of widely available commercial nano-scale devices and materials, real funding for nanotechnology exists worldwide and is accelerating at the national, state, local, business, and academic levels. Also, more funding is constantly requested. When you examine how much money is being called for and allocated, and the actual R&D taking place with positive results, there's no question that a large market is in the offing. But how big is it and how long will it take to materialize? No one, particularly those in the nanotechnology scientific community, is predicting anything less than five to 10 years from now for commercializing nanotechnology.

Worldwide, governments invested at least $1.5 billion in nanotechnology last year. The U.S. Congress approved $849 million for nanotechnology funding for fiscal year 2003 and will likely increase that figure to at least $1 billion by next year. Proposed legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to fund nanotechnology to the tune of $2.1 billion over the next three years will probably be voted on this month.

A recent report by the European Nanobusiness Association, "It's Ours to Lose: An Analysis of the European Union Nanotechnology Funding and the Sixth Framework Programme," estimates that for this year, Japan will be funding the technology at $1 billion and the U.S. at about $700 million. It says that Europe will fund nanotechnology by 2006 at about $680 million, but that figure may reach as much as $3.3 billion when the European Union's Sixth Framework Program for nanotechnology R&D ends.

Comparing funding figures for different countries and continents can be misleading because each area organizes funding differently. For example, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, a government endeavor, provides the largest amount of public funds, whereas in Europe, European Union funding represents only a small fraction of the total amount. The European Commission's research funding represents only about 4% of the total European public research budgets.

A newly formed European organization, Nanoforum, officially known as the Pan-European Forum for Nano-technology, is working to advance nanotechnology in Europe. Headed by Britain's Institute of Nanotechnology, it includes Germany's VDE (an acronym for Germany's Association of Engineers), France's CEA-LETI, Spain's CMP Certifica, and Denmark's Nordic Nanotech.

Germany has launched a $75 million program for nanotechnology research. Britain's Department of Trade and Industry is increasing funding for a planned National Centre for Microsystems and Nanotechnology from $47 million a year to $80 million a year.

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