NSF survey: US gearing for nanomanufacturing

by Phil LoPiccolo, Editor-in-Chief

Results of a major new National Science Foundation (NSF) survey, reported in late June at the New England International Nanomanufacturing Workshop at Boston’s Northeastern U., reveal a surprising level of involvement in nanotechnology R&D and preparedness for nanomanufacturing among US organizations.

The survey of more than 600 US industry executives — representing the largest cross-industry nanotech study to date — indicates that the significance of nanotechnology to both traditional and emerging industries has grown dramatically among US manufacturers during the last five years. Whereas only a handful of organizations were engaged in nanotechnology programs in 2000, today 18% of those surveyed say they are marketing products incorporating nanotechnology, while some 80% expect to commercialize nanoproducts by 2010, and virtually all expect that their organizations will be actively involved with nanotechnology after 2010. Despite the optimistic outlook, however, there was widespread consensus among respondents that significant challenges must be resolved to stimulate commercialization of the technology.

According to Manish Mehta, principal investigator at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), which conducted the survey, more than half of all respondents reported that their organizations are currently involved in developing nanomanufacturing technology, which he defined as “the ability to build products with atomic precision, and the projected ability to make things from the bottom up using techniques and tools being developed to put every atom and molecule in a desired place.” Of the organizations actively involved, 32% are academic, corporate, and government labs, 31% are manufacturers and integrators, 29% are service and component suppliers, and some 8% are end-user OEMs.

These organizations have thus far succeeded in developing first-generation, “passive” nanotech materials and devices, Mehta said, including such as semiconductors, nanowires, nanotubes, coatings, polymers, thin films, reactive catalysts, and nanoparticles that have already been commercialized or that will be commercialized within the next three years. According to respondents, these products are being targeted for a diverse range of industry sectors, including defense, equipment, and logistics (52%); electronics and semiconductors (46%), computing, information technology, and telecommunications (46%); aerospace (38%); automotive (34%); chemical and process industries (33%); sensing, environmental, and security (29%); and energy and utilities (29%).

R&D efforts are also underway to develop second-generation, “active” nanotech sensors, actuators, and communications devices with more complex, engineered structures, including those that link to biological interfaces such as drug delivery and diagnostic systems and medical implants. Over the next couple of decades, third-generation products will include novel robotic devices, 3D networks, and guided assemblies — and beyond that, fourth-stage products will feature molecule-by-molecule design and self-assembly capabilities. “Integration of these fourth-generation nanotechnologies with information, biological, and cognitive technologies will lead to products we can only now vaguely imagine,” according to M.C. Roco, senior advisor for nanotechnology at NSF.

Despite the technology’s promise, the majority of nanotech execs agreed that considerable obstacles must be overcome before such futuristic products and applications can be achieved. Foremost among these are technical challenges including high processing costs and scalability challenges, as well as business concerns such as the lack of investment capital, a shortage of qualified technical and business talent, and concerns about intellectual property protection.

The key to meeting these challenges will entail aggressive national R&D policies for pursuing nanoscale science, engineering, and manufacturing technologies. In fact, nearly 95% of the survey’s respondents favored government involvement in commercializing nanomanufacturing, including incentives for pre-competitive R&D and private investment. Other recommended strategies include increased collaboration in value chains, and investments in R&D aimed at reducing or combining process steps and in new equipment to improve product yield.

The bottom line is that organizations appear to be transitioning resolutely toward nanotechnology, and most have reached a sufficient level of nanomanufacturing preparedness. In fact, 78% are currently developing nanotechnology products, 70% have the internal capacity to pursue nanomanufacturing, 68% have adequate internal infrastructure — and only 19% are dissatisfied with the pace of corporate changes to accommodate nanomanufacturing. — P.L.


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