How does nanotech measure up? First, you need the right yardstick

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Nov. 15, 2002 — How fully nanotechnology realizes its business potential will in large part hinge on the industry’s ability to accurately test and measure its products, experts say.

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Investment won’t flow in and companies won’t trust their mission-critical procedures to nanotechnology unless the test and measure dragon is slain. Gauging dimensions, thermal properties, conductivity, strength and other elements is key in creating “manufacturability,” or the ability to create a duplicate object on an ongoing basis.

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Progress appears mixed. In general, experts agree that testing of solids is far ahead of fluids. “If you are talking about hard materials, we’ve almost got the problem licked,” said Tom Wyrobek, president of Hysitron Inc., a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of hard surface testing equipment. “If you are talking about biological apps, soft materials, that’s just starting.”

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Testing of solids is ahead because they tend to be less influenced by their environment and are therefore easier to isolate and measure. On the business side, the most successful nanolevel endeavor to date — semiconductors — is a solid. This means that an effective test and measurement industry regime has been developed for hard materials.

“Semiconductors are definitely leading the parade right now,” said Doug Jamison, a vice president with Harris & Harris Group Inc., a New York-based venture capital company that invests in small tech. “They have been around longer, the technology is more mature.”

But test and measurement researchers are beginning to face a major challenge: There’s a limit on the number of dimensions that can be measured repeatedly.

Terry Michalske, director of the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT), a joint project of Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, said that during the past five to seven years development of the scanning tunneling microscope has greatly enhanced the ability to measure width and height of nanostructures.

The next step, he said, will be to test and measure in three dimensions. This will be difficult, but necessary to mass-produce potentially valuable things such as carbon nanotubes, he said. “It’s easy to scan a needle across a flat surface,” he said. “Think about scanning around the circumference of a carbon nanotube. I think it will require a new technology… I think it is a major challenge.” Wyrobek said that Hysitron offers three-dimensional testing techniques.

An example of practical test applications, Wyrobek said, will occur when Armstrong World Industries Inc. places Hysitron’s nanoindentation tools in its floor tiles to test functionality and product life. Wyrobek, citing a nondisclosure agreement with Armstrong, would not say when the tests will take place. Currently, the company has a somewhat less sophisticated means of gauging these important qualities: It puts new floor tile in the company cafeteria and examines them after six months of scuffs and spilled soups.

Hysitron offers the TriboIndenter, which measures mechanical properties such as the hardness and viscoelasticity of solids. It has sold TriboIndentors, which run about $250,000 each, to IBM Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., Dow Chemical Co., Xerox Corp., 3M, Intel Corp. and Gillette Co. Its gear is also at Sandia, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, NASA, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory and elsewhere. A key player in the MEMS test and measurement arena is Etec Inc. The company, which specializes in testing how MEMS products perform, offers three main product families: The M/SteP-I series tests and calibrates inertial MEMS, the M/SteP-p series tests and calibrates pressure MEMS and the M/SteP-o series tests and calibrates optical MEMS, says Mark Ford, the company’s president. He would not say how much the products costs.

A big question now is not only how long it will be before venture capitalists start seriously seeding nanotechnology companies, but also what role test and measurement will play in their decisions.

Harris & Harris’s Jamison said that most VCs fund on the expectation of getting a payback within one to three years. A longer timeframe may just be too speculative. That’s why a predominant amount of money has flowed to revenue-producing semiconductor manufacturers. It is an established industry with a technological roadmap and established test and measurement procedures.

Test and measurement of nanotechnology will become increasingly important during the next few years, experts indicate. “I think people realize that testing is critical,” Jamison said. “I think for an investment standpoint companies are realizing it on the hard side. On the soft side, I don’t think anyone has that answer yet.”


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