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The Big Business of Nanotechnology

Imagine if you will:

  • Evermore powerful computers and cell phones, cleaner, stronger, more precise;
  • Medical detectors that can identify tumors as small as 100 cells;·  
  • Programmable antibodies that find and destroy bacteria, viruses, and cancers without damaging healthy tissue;·
  • Sunscreens that absorb – not reflect -- ultraviolet radiation
  • Completely stain-repellant fibers;
  • Anti-microbial bandages;
  • Anti-bacterial, anti-fungal refrigerators, air conditioners, and washing machines.

They’re on the way. And they all employ nanotechnology.

“Nanotechnology is not a what,” says Alan Brown, executive director of the new Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center, “it’s a how. It’s how we enable existing products to become better -- much better. How we add new features -- antibacterial coatings on hospital walls, for example. That’s how nanotechnology is being used. What it means for Pittsburgh is vastly increased research and development, premium prices for the advanced materials we create, higher profits, and far more jobs.”

As proof positive, Brown points to two very successful nano-based products: PPG’s CeramiClear and SunClean. The former, now standard with Mercedes Benz, uses nano-particles embedded in automotive paint to provide increased resistance to scratches, car washes, and tree sap. Similarly, SunClean glass mixes with sunlight and water so that windows actually clean themselves. “That’s pretty phenomenal stuff,” Browns says. “It has the potential to revolutionize a whole range of applications and industries.”

Say what?

The what of nanotechnology is engineering at the molecular level, creating structures with new properties and functions. Roaming across such disciplines as colloidal science, chemistry, physics, materials science, and mechanical and electrical engineering, nanotechnology manipulates matter at one to 100 nanometers -- one-billionth of a meter – and will forever change information processing, data storage, sensors, power generation, coatings, metals, robotics, medicine – name it. The science – and applications – are barely on the cusp.

Wherever we are, it’s flourishing here. In 2005 Small Times ranked Carnegie Mellon among the top five nano-universities. Premier is CMU’s Center for Interdisciplinary Nanotechnology Research. Founded in 2001 to bring together significant research being conducted throughout the university, CINR operates as both focal point and catalyst for new research, as well as a clearinghouse for nanotechnology information.

Already in the field, CMU and Seagate, the world's largest manufacturer of disc drives, have nanotechnology working on Magnetoresistive Random Access Memory (MRAM), a technology that stores data magnetically, meaning hard drives don’t require power to retain information. Imagine data storage that’s dense, fast, and static.

CMU’s Reconfigurable Nanotechnology Project, also known as the Phoenix Project, is exploring something called the Field Programmable Gate Array, another term for a fully programmable alternative to the computer chip. Currently, the world market for that little item is a cool $2.6 billion – so imagine the possibilities.

Across Oakland, Pitt’s Institute of Nanoscience and Engineering is much like its CMU counterpart. As one example of the Pitt’s cutting-edge work, the Center of Molecular and Materials Simulations uses computers to map carbon nanotubes – which could find their way into nanoscale transistors. In another Pitt project, researchers have found ways to create self-assembling nanotubes that can be trained to kill bacteria. As such, they have great potential for detecting and decontaminating biological and chemical weapons. Imagine: a paint that changes color and simultaneously destroys deadly substances.

Leveraging Assets

As futuristic as these ideas sound now, sooner or later, they and other nano-products will find their way to market. Recognizing this, in 2005 a team of regional leaders -- including Alcoa, Bayer Material Science, PPG, and U.S. Steel -- joined with CMU, Pitt, and Penn State to develop a coordinated strategy to leverage public and private investment in nanotechnology. Created in 2006 with Alan Brown as executive director, the new Pennsylvania NanoMaterials Commercialization Center provides assistance and funding to promising nanomaterials research with a well defined commercial application.

Born in England, raised in Toronto, imported from CAMP (Cleveland Advanced Manufacturing Program), Brown has a Ph.D. in physics – and a solid history of assisting companies and entrepreneurs in adopting and supporting advanced technologies, including nanotechnology. “I was so impressed when I came here,” he says. “Nowhere else in America is there this critical mass of Fortune 500 companies in material sciences. And that corporate leadership is very passionate that industry commercializes these emerging nanotechnologies.”

Acting under the Pittsburgh Technology Council umbrella, PNCC uses its non-profit status to secure grant money to fund projects with commercial promise. “The money comes from a variety of sources for us to find the best technology and bring it to a commercial application,” Brown says.

NanoLambda, developer of high-definition nanoscale noninvasive glucose monitors for health care -- and biochemical sensors for defense – is creating "an ultra-compact, inexpensive, high-resolution spectrometer on a chip," says NanoLambda CEO Bill Choi. "This technology will open up a new arena of optical sensing applications, a market whose potential has been limited by bulky and expensive conventional devices."

NanoLambda's Spectrum Sensor chip builds upon leading-edge plasmonics technology to produce the first nanoscale spectrum analyzer. Combining both optical and electronic data transfer, plasmonics allows data to be transmitted at fast optical frequencies along the surface of a nanoscale metal wire rather than a bulky fiber optic cable. "Imagine a wearable monitor for diabetics that’s always on,” Choi says. “That would result in overall health-care cost reduction and improve quality of life for patients who wouldn't have to take blood samples."

Plextronics continues development of its Plexcore PV for organic solar cells. As part of a new generation of polymer-based semi-conductive inks that increase solar conversion efficiency, "the primary commercialization challenge is achieving the required combination of operating efficiency and device life,” Brown says. “Nanotechnology is the key to success. The ability to control polymer design at the nano-scale enables Plexcore PV inks to be formulated with application-specific properties." As such, new thin film technologies, including organic solar cells, will enable such alternative energy sources as solar energy, meaning no emissions, meaning reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

And so on. Once again, we’re only on the cusp of the nanotechnology explosion. “It’s hard to quantify,” Brown says. “Nationally, within five to 10 years there could easily be a trillion-dollar impact.”

That’s trillion with a T. What Pittsburgh’s share will be is anyone’s guess. But as one of the country’s top nano-centers, growing exponentially and marketing aggressively, it will no doubt be substantial. In the process, it will revolutionize the region. In ways that will no longer be too small to be seen.

Award-winning writer Abby Mendelson is the author of numerous books, including The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History and Pittsburgh: A Place in Time. Ghost Dancer, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.


Nanolambda's Spectrum Sensor chip

Alan Brown

A test showing Ceramiclear protected door on left, unprotected on right

Rendering of carbon nanotubes

UPARC, location of Nanolambda and Plextronics

Bill Choi with nanolamba chip

Plexcore for organic solar chips

All photographs copyright © Jonathan Greene
except Ceramiclear, courtesy of Daimler Chrysler
Nanotubes, courtesy of Wikimedia, (Created by Michael Strock)
Plexcore courtesy of Plextronics

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