Inside The Industry: Nanotechnology

June 14, 2004
Four Generations Of Nanotechnology Products

Ongoing R&D programs in nanotechnology promise to increase the efficiency in traditional industries and bring radically new applications through emerging technologies by 2015. Here's why:

  • Half of the newly designed advanced materials and manufacturing processes by 2015 will be built using control at the nanoscale level in at least one of the key components. This will mark a milestone toward the new industrial revolution. Silicon transistors will reach dimensions about or smaller than 10 nm and will be integrated with molecular or other kinds of nanoscale systems.
  • Suffering from chronic illnesses is already being sharply reduced. It's conceivable that by 2015, our ability to detect and treat tumors in their first year of occurrence might greatly mitigate suffering and death from cancer.
  • The convergence of science and engineering at the nanoscale level will establish a mainstream pattern for applying and integrating nanotechnology with biology, electronics, medicine, learning, and other fields. Science and engineering of nanobiosystems will become essential to human health care and biotechnology. Life-cycle sustainability and biocompatibility will be pursued in the development of new products.
  • Knowledge development and education will originate from the nanoscale instead of the microscale level. A new education paradigm not based on disciplines, but on unity of nature and education-research integration, will be tested for educational grades K-16.
  • Nanotechnology businesses and organizations will restructure toward integration with other technologies, distributed production, continuing education, and the forming consortia of complementary activities. Traditional and emerging technologies will be equally affected.

Nanotechnology's capabilities for systematic control and manufacture at the nanoscale level will evolve in four overlapping generations of new products. Each generation is marked here by the creation of the first commercial prototypes using systematic control of the respective phenomena and manufacturing processing:

  • The first generation of products emerged in 2001 in the form of passive nanostructures used to tailor macroscale properties and functions—nano-structured coatings, the dispersion of nanoparticles, and bulk materials like nanostructured metals, polymers, and ceramics.
  • Second-generation products—active nanostructures for mechanical, electronic, magnetic, photonic, biological, and other effects, integrated into microscale devices and systems—will emerge around 2005. New transistors, components beyond CMOS amplifiers, targeted drugs and chemicals, actuators, artificial muscles, and adaptive structures illustrate this.
  • By 2010, a third generation of products, including nanosystems with 3D features, can be expected, using various syntheses and assembling techniques (such as hierarchical, self-organizing bio-assembling robotics with emerging behavior), as well as evolutionary approaches. A key challenge is networking at the nanoscale and hierarchical architectures. Research focus will shift toward heterogeneous nanostructures and supramolecular system engineering. This includes directed multiscale self-assembling, artificial tissues and sensorial systems, quantum interactions within nanoscale systems, processing of information using photons or electron spin, assemblies of nanoscale electromechanical systems (NEMS), and the convergence of nano, bio, info, and cognitive platforms integrated from the nanoscale level and up.
  • By 2015, expect the fourth generation to bring heterogeneous molecular nanosystems, where each molecule in the nanosystem has a specific structure and plays a different role. Molecules will be used as devices. From their engineered structures and architectures will emerge fundamentally new functions. The design of new atomic and molecular assemblies is expected to increase in importance. This includes macromolecules "by design," nanoscale machines, and directed and multiscale self-assembly exploiting quantum control, nanosystem biology for health care, the human-machine interface at the tissue and nervous-system level, and the convergence of nano-bio-info-cognitive domains.

Fueling these developments is the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a long-term R&D program that coordinates 19 departments and independent agencies, with a total investment of about $961 million in fiscal year 2004. While expectations from nanotechnology may be overestimated in the short term, long-term implications on health care, productivity, and environment appear to be underestimated.

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