Electronic Design

The Big And Small Pictures: Pondering Nanotechnology In The Heart Of Wall Street

Money—and capitalism—are considered the root of all evil by those who regarded the World Trade Center as an appropriate symbol for an attack on America. Last month's NanoBusiness 2003 conference, set at a hotel just a few steps from the WTC site, gave me a chance to witness and reflect on the opposing viewpoint: the central role Wall Street and American investment can play in building the "greater good," supporting the birth of technologies that can eventually benefit all of humanity.

Breaking from the conference to walk alongside the WTC site moved my thinking from the atomic level to these "bigger picture" issues. (Visiting the WTC site triggers a mix of sorrow, pride, anger, and patriotism.) The WTC symbolized the apex of a system channeling the power of capitalism for maximum return to the global community.

At NanoBusiness 2003 (produced by Electronic Design's parent company, Penton Media), investors explored the basics of working with particles one-billionth of a meter (literally at the atomic particle level). They learned that individual particles of a substance have different physical properties, creating a treasure trove of "new" raw materials with properties radically different than those same atoms joined in their usual structures. Further, they learned about quantum dots, nanomechanical effects, and biological nanosystems.

Current nano-apps with the most traction are nanoparticles used in automotive and other manufacturing applications, helping to create safer, more fuel-efficient transportation. But electronics applications were cited repeatedly as having the best investment return potential, with nanocrystals, nanowires, and "smart dust" seen as areas of ripe opportunity. (For details on nanotechnology in the EOEM marketplace, see Electronic Design, "Nanotechnology: The Next Revolution To Redefine Electronics," May 26, 2003, p. 55, ED Online 3567.)

While nano company founders were on the dais seeking financial support for their companies, it was clear that their passion was for their individual visions of how nanoscience will transform the world. It was awe-inspiring to listen to the likes of Ed Monachino, assistant director for technology at the National Institutes of Health, matter-of-factly outlining new cancer treatments that will obsolete the trauma of chemotherapy and radiation with one-time treatments using nanobiotherapeutics. The predicted uses for nanotechnology in health care range from intra-cell drug delivery to pressure sensors for robotic surgery.

But tools for research at the nano level don't come cheaply. Consider the big-ticket price of essential tools like the scanning tunneling microscope, and it's quickly apparent why investment capital and an incentive for risk are key elements for technology incubation.

As an appropriate capper for my musings on the power of capitalism, I joined a field trip (organized by the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium) to visit the nanoresearch facilities at Lucent Technologies and the home of the legendary Bell Labs. The scientific wealth of Bell Labs has nurtured a high-tech legacy of astounding proportion. This is truly hallowed ground—birthplace of the transistor, the UNIX operating system, the laser, communications satellites, cellular telephony, and charge-coupled devices, to name a few among 30,000 patents!

It's equally mind boggling that Lucent Technologies remains among the jetsam of last century's high-tech market crash, a reminder that Wall Street takes a risk, even when betting on one of the best think tanks in the world. But Lucent and other tech stocks are finally rising from the ashes. Likewise, the world's tallest tower is planned for the WTC site.

In the big picture, I bet that the capital will continue to follow and grow with the world's brightest minds and most global thinkers.

TAGS: Automotive
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