Nanozone progress means focus and tough choices

By Bob Haavind, Group Editorial Director

While exotic properties of materials in the nanozone (1-100nm) promise a host of new devices and applications, success in the marketplace will depend on making tough choices and focusing on developing products offering sustainable profits. That message was clear throughout SEMI’s NanoCommerce/Nano-Forum conference in Chicago Nov. 1-3, and the theme was evident for both large companies and startups as they try to direct the fervor of discovery in nanotech R&D into potentially profitable product areas.

Improved electronics and displays are a major goal for nanozone products, but a very wide range of other commercial opportunities are emerging as well, as indicated by panel discussions and presentations. Sensors combining circuitry with trace chemical detectors or bio-materials appear to be a particularly rich target. Applications such as preventing terrorist attacks as well as new battlefield capabilities are being supported by myriad government programs discussed at the conference. Bio-chips for medical and pharmaceutical research as well as quick, low-cost diagnostics appears to be another important emerging sector.

Motorola’s efforts to nurture nanotech developments coming out of its research labs in Chicago and Phoenix were detailed by Jim O’Connor, VP, Early Stage Accelerator (ESA). The goal is to speed up technology research results into revenue-producing products, he said, describing the process as “accelerating sustainable top-line growth through internal capital allocation.”

“Nanotechnology will be an engine of growth for a long time,” O’Connor said, explaining that when private investment is added to government funding, R&D in the US is some $3 billion/year, about a third of an estimated $9 billion globally. Motorola is ready to take significant risk, he added, for products that may be up to 10 years out. The ESA group screens hundreds of ideas every year, invests in 10-25, and tries to graduate 5-15 toward commercialization. The ideas, many nanotech-based, come not just from the labs, but also from customers, various internal business technical organizations, and potential partners.

Accelerated prototyping is one of the goals of ESA — he cited the example of nanoemissive displays using carbon nanotubes, an area where Motorola has 160 patents. Using proprietary technology, the labs have built a 5-in. diagonal full-color video prototype. As with some other developments, Motorola is partnering with other companies to share risk in developing field-emission displays. In a few cases new businesses will be created to commercialize innovations, O’Connor said, but in others intellectual property (IP) will be licensed.

Objective decisions based on strategic relevance as well as financial goals are critical keys to ESA’s success, according to O’Connor. Market testing and consumer feedback are important, as are good planning and communication. Business modeling must include ecosystem development and effective tools. Champions are needed to gain sponsorship within the company and top management backing, he added.

“Nanotech is a major disrupter,” O’Connor commented, pointing out that in mobile phones nanotech promises power savings as well as better optics, acoustics, displays, antennas, sensors, actuators and batteries, with more enriched electronics in a smaller form factor. Beyond electronics, he also cited nanocoatings and nanocomposites such as nanoscale materials in a polymer matrix.

Motorola’s Phoenix lab also works closely with startup Molecular Imprints Inc., which makes equipment for maskless, direct-contact lithography with sub-20nm resolution and has over 300 patents. Motorola participated in all three rounds of financing and is MII’s key customer, according to O’Connor.

Degussa, a $14 billion German company, is also struggling with overcoming the inertia and bureaucracy that usually make large companies poor innovators, according to Geoffrey Varga, director of advanced nanomaterials. The company built a “virtuoso team” — three types of technical innovators are needed for products, processes and applications, according to Varga. A buffer executive is also essential to serve as a protector and modifier of rules and procedures.

Varga asserts there is no actual “nanotech” market, but rather a nanotech supply chain with subchains such as process steps, pre-cursors, and catalysts. This can be broken down into nanomaterials, nanointermediates, and nano-enabled systems and products, he explained.

Carbon nanotubes (CNT) is one of the fastest growing materials markets, and Jim Von Ehr, founder and CEO of Zyvex, explained his small company’s work in nanointermediates. Raw CNTs aggregate and can’t be dispersed in a host polymer, Van Ehr explained, so his company adds a molecule called Kantera, that links on one side to a single-wall or multiwall nanotube while the other side can adhere to a matrix or be used for dispersion or exfoliation. Zyvex buys raw CNTs and processes them into a solvent or polymer. Most customers buy this material, but in some cases Zyvex will produce the final product.

There are many applications for CNTs, which are 100x stronger than steel, and have the best electrical and thermal conductivity of any material. CNTs offer very high thermal conductivity for electronic packaging and interface materials, and can be used in electrically conducting plastics for applications such as ESI shielding and electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection. They also offer the highest specific-strength engineering material or composites for armor and aerospace components and sporting goods. Right now CNTs may add 20% to performance, but Zyvex wants to keep improving on this. The raw CNTs have too much variation now, for example, so more uniform materials are needed.

While cost is often important, Van Ehr said that NASA is his favorite customer because they said that as long as the material worked, “we don’t care how much it costs.”

Zyvex has collected 33 patents and has 30 more pending, and has a Class 1000 cleanroom, its own CNC-equipped machine shop, and several labs with “lots of metrology — SEM, TEM, AFM, etc.,” he explained. Because each project involves a lot of “hand-holding,” he said that a small company has to limit the number of customers.

The company’s eventual aim is to build molecular nanomachines at the scale of the products being built to allow precise manipulation, but to finance its efforts it must spin off many products along the way, according to Van Ehr.

Thus, small as well as large companies must remain focused in order to provide the capital needed for more far-out objectives. — B.H.


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