The 2000s has seen the beginnings of a vast applications of nanotechnology in commercial products, although this trend seems global, some regional difference exist across the globe: the typical technology transfer success rate in developing countries is between 3–5% compared to 10–15% in developed countries according to the most recent reviews from specialized journals such as “Journal of Technology Transfer or Nanotechnology Law & Business”.
Accordingly, over the past few years, many top consultancy firms undertook analysis of the current market and published detailed forecasts concerning the nanotechnology-driven opportunities for economic growth (see McKinsey Global Institute at http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/mgi, or IBM Smarter Planet athttp://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/us/en/?ca=v_smarterplanet); furthermore some other government or private institutions are already flourishing thanks to the specific mission to provide researchers, industries, policy makers, venture capitalists and funding agencies not only with the latest insights, but with all that is needed to take advantage from new business opportunities in such emerging technology (see http://www.luxresearchinc.com, http://www.ckmnt.com, etc).
To help the readers of the iStarter’s blog navigating these wild and adventurous seas, we will herein discuss those appealing opening with the brightest chances for business development… trying to do it with both a local and global perspective, as usual!
We are all aware of the Moore’s Law but we know much less of the role played by nanotechnology in this field, and its milestone contributions in the electronics and IT industry. Most of the advantages of the miniaturization power rely indeed on several fundamental lithographic techniques: for instance, the resolution of nanotechnology platforms is nowadays 3 orders of magnitude lower than at the time when microchips were first developed, as a result the amount of information that can be put on it has increased by a factor of 106-108, thus demonstrating the powerful capabilities of nano-scaling in IT applications. As a result, today, most of the commercially available computer microprocessors have features that are less than 100 nm: these smaller sizes are the main leading factors to a continuous increase in processing capacities and speed.
Although the computing power has significantly increased over the last decades, the ultimate possible limit has not been reached yet. The still growing demand for improved data storage and management will therefore foster the translational research for better performances and improved chip technology also for the years to come.
Noteworthy, all elements of energy conversion such as charge transfer, molecular rearrangements, and chemical reactions happen at the nanoscale. Since nanofeatured materials possess new physical and chemical properties, they are particularly appealing because of the high surface area per unit volume, which contributes to much higher surface activity than in the bulk material. By speeding up many chemical reactions, these aspects allowed to improve the efficiency of various processes: their manipulation and assembly have therefore created breakthroughs in the energy sector towards sustainable energy production, storage, and use.
In a new nanoworld more energetic batteries also equal greener profits! Consider for instance that the use of nanomaterials could lead to batteries with higher energy capacity, leading to a decrease in the issues related to battery disposal. One of the first approaches in this direction came from world class academic institutions (such as MIT or Stanford University), where the use of silicon-based nanowires or manganese-oxide nanowires to increase the ability of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for laptops or cell-phones, ended up with new products patented with the specifics to provide 10x the capacity of traditional Lithium batteries with an efficiency close to 99.9%.
With respect to the Italian scenario, while some companies such as ENI are now heavily investing in R&D, some renowned academic institutions are preparing the leaders of tomorrow for this challenge, as the topic of the SISSA’s 2014 Master in Complex Actions will be Energy for the second year in a row (www.mca.sissa.it). Furthermore, next autumn Verona Fair will bring the utmost attention to this industry by hosting the 2014 Efficiency Summit and Smart Energy Expo (seewww.smartenergyexpo.net).
Nanotechnologies are already applied in several aspects of food production: from nano-sized pesticides to production machineries. The focus of this path could probably re-structure the food business in the future by adding unique value to foods with respect to nutrition & health and gastronomy & pleasure. However, the smallest food microstructure that can be controlled with conventional processing technologies is probably an order of 5–10 μm, which is about 100x larger than the upper limit of today’s nanotechnology. So a big gap still exists between what current technologies can do and the promise that a pervasive nanotechnology holds forth.
This momentum was initially exploited by multinational Big Pharmas, nevertheless several other actors of this industry, which accounts worldwide for an annual turnover approximating 4 trillion USD, are rapidly catching up. The next step of this evolution of the food industry is related to the incorporation of nanoparticles not only in edible foods but also in packaging materials in order to lengthen the possible storage time while keeping the products fresh and more resistant to external factors. For instance, some research projects are now focused toward their application as reactive particles, or nanosensors in packaging materials, with a design meant to respond to various environmental changes, such as temperature or moisture in storage rooms, or degradation products of the food commodities, or even contamination by micro-organisms.
Air and Water Purification:
Nanotechnology can be used to reduce air pollution in two different ways: catalysts and nano-structured membranes, thus improving the performances and reducing costs of the management of emissions produced by cars or industrial plants. As shown in the other section the market is characterized by a fair competition between research institution and private companies: while researchers at UCLA in USA are using crystals containing nano-sized pores to trap carbon dioxide (UCLA Newsroom), Toyota in Japan has developed a mesoporous manganese oxide/nanogold catalyst that can remove volatile organic compounds and hazardous nitrogen and sulfur oxides from air at room temperature (Toyota Central Research and Development Laboratories).
Moreover, nanotechnology is providing hope for the monitoring, desalinization, and purification of water in developing countries and of waste-water treatment industries in the industrialized ones. A range of water treatment devices that incorporate nanotechnology (including nanofiltration membranes, nanocatalysts, magnetic nanoparticles, and nanosensors for the detection of contaminants) are already on the market, while others are in advanced stages of development, thus at present the window of opportunity in this field is massively starting to open, and hopefully it will be so for the next decade.
The last paragraph of this article is dedicated to the outer space, because those who considered the competition for supremacy in space exploration already over are tremendously wrong! In fact, the latest Chinese achievements in 2013 confirm that this race is alive and still largely open. Noteworthy, beside the political competition, the technological one is much fiercer: just consider that every project for the mapping and sensing of vast planetary areas, as well as for enhancing health management and protection systems for astronauts, currently uses nanotechnology.
Let’s mention two examples on how nanosciences are playing a key role in making space travels not only possible but also more practical: one is the “Nanotube Project” conducted by NASA at Johnson Space Center for the development of nanotube composites designed to reduce the weight of spacecrafts and therefore the amount of rocket fuel required for interplanetary travels; another is the development of bio-nano spacesuits with robots integrated into the layers coined “All Terrain Bio-Nano Gear System” to detect space radiations, which are the most harmful health issue for astronauts over long-term space journeys.
To conclude our dissertation, let’s highlight some further useful web resource:
- Nanowerk is a web portal, committed to educate and inspire all the interested audience about nanotechnologies and nanosciences, while providing an international outlook as well as detailed national reports (see http://www.nanowerk.com).
- WIPO, the global forum for intellectual property services, policy, information and cooperation, is a key tool to get orientated among the international IP rules in such a changing World (see http://www.wipo.int).
- Created in 2003 by AIRI (Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca Industriale), Nanotec IT is a well established forum meant to tighten the collaboration between public research institutions and the private sector (see http://www.nanotec.it/).
As seen in those paragraphs, nanotechnology has made incredible progress over the past decades opening up totally new realms of science, especially at the intersection between disciplines: the new understanding developed so far is also opening new horizons for many businesses. Therefore we must foremost recognize that the present decade of rousing wonder promises to be the most exciting ever witnessed not only by scientists but also by enlightened entrepreneurs. No educated guess but our imagination will help us to understand this epic revolution; therefore standard mental schemes are to be banned! Cause the chase is open, and as they said in the film Back to the Future: “Where we’re going, we don’t even need roads”.
Author: Mario Ganau MD, MSBM, PhD
Credits: Sandro Zazzali (data search), Lara Prisco (cartoonist)