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Home > Nanotechnology Introduction > Disruptive Technology > Disruptive Technologies Part II

Second in the Disruptive Technology Series

Neil Gordon (bio), and Nanotechnology Now talk about Disruptive Technologies.

April 28th, 2003.

Questions by Rocky Rawstern, Editor Nanotechnology Now
Answers by Neil Gordon.

Most of the public has heard the term "disruptive technologies", but few really understand how they can effect society. Can you give a few examples of past disruptive technologies, and the changes they brought about?

Imagine what our lives would be like without electricity, telephones, computers, combustion engines, airplanes, plastic, and birth control pills, to name a few. What justifies the classification of these technologies as disruptive are the previous products or processes that they have replaced – alone or in combination with other technologies.

Computers and telecommunication technologies have disrupted so many aspects of our lives. As an example, consider the multiple disruptions they have made on bank operations since the time I opened my first bank account. I remember watching a secretary type my application with a “typewriter”, having a teller update my account balance “with a pen” both in my bankbook and in the branch’s account ledger, and getting a pat on the head from the security guard as I left the branch. Now I use the Internet to get an update of my bank statement, an ATM to get cash, and my telephone to pay utility bills. My old bank branch was shut down years ago but if I were to drive to the next closest branch miles away, I would pass a security camera, and then walk through an automated queuing system which controls line waits and schedules the few remaining humans left in the branch.

While most people are aware of and regularly use computers in their home and office settings, most do not understand that the driving force behind the development of the "brain" of their computer is nanoscale technology. Can you tell us about other areas where nanoscale technologies are used today, but not recognized as such?

The low hanging fruit of nanotechnology includes certain ultra-fine chemicals, performance chemicals and advanced materials that have been evolving into the nanoscale with little fanfare and are cannibalizing similar microscale materials, by providing substantially better performance. Some of the early adopters of nanoscale technology are wear-resistant and environment-resistant coatings for industrial and military applications, lightweight structural materials for aircraft and cars, magnetic coatings for computer hard drives, stain resistant coatings for clothing (mostly men's), adherents and absorbents for water treatment, better UV shielding in sunscreens, and chemical-mechanical planarization (CMP) abrasives for polishing silicon wafers.

This list would be much greater except that the market acceptance of nanotechnology is slower than expected. This is because nanomaterials and devices are part of a vertically integrated value chain that has multiple buying groups and various stages of approval. For example, ceramic nanomaterials have the potential to replace platinum in catalytic converters at a fraction of the price. Beyond the basic product criteria of the nanomaterial supplier for technical specifications, production ramp-up, intellectual property protection, etc; a catalytic converter manufacturer has to modify its product to accommodate the new nanomaterial; a car manufacturer has to refine its design for a future model year; and the regulatory agencies (EPA, DOT, etc) have to approve the new technology. All this moves according to the slow but methodical pace of large companies and regulatory bodies.

Many outrageous claims have been seen in the press over the past couple years regarding science-fiction-like benefits coming from nanotechnology; space tethers, immortality, and downloading a human mind to name a few. Can you talk about some of the more mundane and perhaps realistic near-term benefits stemming from nanoscale science and technology, and how they may disrupt existing technologies?

One area of potential near-term benefits from nanotechnology could come from “less” materials consumed by our society, which in turn, will have a positive effect on the environment. For example, in 2000 the US economy consumed $72 billion of iron and steel. If we can offset a significant percentage of bulk materials with nanomaterials that are lighter, stronger, more electrically conductive, superparamagnetic, tunable optical emission, more porous, better thermal insulating, and less corrosive materials and coatings, we may be able to considerably reduce the overall consumption of steel and other principal materials. While this might not be good news to some traditional industries, the consequences are enormous: Less mining, drilling and harvesting natural resources; less energy for processing natural resources; less waste in processing raw materials; lighter products such as cars which in turn will use less fuel; less corrosion from new coatings so that the steel products can last longer without replacement, etc. The combined effect could reduce pollution and improve our environment.

There has lately been an increase in what has been labeled as "non-scientific" and "hysterical" reporting. Groups such as ETC have raised issues regarding the perceived danger of nanotechnology, and the need to place a moratorium on all nanoscale research and production until we know for sure that no danger exists. While this discussion will undoubtedly continue, and should continue, the more important (in our view) discussion is the likely societal and technological disruptions and their consequences, which seems to be lacking. Given the potential for disruptive technologies to massively impact business and society, and coupled with the double exponential growth rate of new technologies, can you talk about how sites such as Nanotechnology Now, scientists such as yourselves, and other professionals, can get this discussion rolling?

I have always been fascinated by how a Star Trek transporter could decompose people, send their molecules to a distant site, and then have each molecule self-assemble flawlessly back to its original form, fit and functionality. I am equally fascinated by how an Alien enemy can use similar technology to shoot at Captain Kirk from point blank range and consistently miss him. There is a difference between science and science fiction. In my opinion ETC is overly obsessed with science fiction and sketchy hypotheses. Their call to place a moratorium on nanoscale research and production is akin to having a moratorium on chemistry, physics and biology. At stake is delaying brilliant scientists from finding possible cures and solutions for cancer, clean water, and cheap energy, among many others.

Clearly there are health risks with ultrafine particles, toxic materials, biohazards, and certain production equipment. However this is true for research and production at all dimensions – meters, micrometers, nanometers and picometers. Regulations and safety practices have been established over the years and must be respected, with violators facing the consequences.

Getting back to the question of targets for disruptive technologies, the key is vision and ambitious initiatives to make it happen. President Kennedy wanted to put a man on the moon and it was done. This accomplishment had generated various disruptive technologies that have benefited mankind. We need dialogs on defining highly focused challenges and then enlist sponsoring government agencies to partially offset pre-commercialization risks. Business, government and academia can begin the process by identifying where they would like to be at some future point and then get the resources needed to go ahead and do it.

In terms of disrupting existing consumer products, which nanoscale technologies or nanoscale materials will impact the world the soonest? And which will do so in the next 5 years, and the next 10 years?

Some of the near term products are described above. In 5 years, we could see disruptive technologies for early detection and advanced warning, including the ability to more closely monitor the world’s most dangerous bioterrorist – Mother Nature. With breakthroughs on the horizon in sensing technologies and associated infrastructure, we can expect new products that can detect trace amounts of chemical, biological, other things of interest in near real-time. This could include home and office detectors for human diseases like SARS; detectors in clothing to locate wondering Alzheimer’s patients; and advanced warning systems for agricultural threats like mad cow disease; workers at risk in dangerous environments; oil spills at sea; cancerous tumors; and military threats for national security. While the technology may be available to monitor the movement of humans including foreign travelers with limited visas and prisoners on parole, a point of caution will be the trade-off between access to information, and the potential invasion and abuse of privacy.

In 10 years, we may see disruptive technologies for personalized medical applications. With complementary advances in the human genome, gene cloning and molecular biology, a vast amount of new probes are increasingly available which could in time cover the entire genome, and potentially screen multiple targets in a single test. People could be tested daily for various diseases, and in the event of a problem, a customize cocktail of therapeutics and nutrients could be prescribed with the optimal drug delivery systems that releases extremely small payloads to precise destinations. Miniature devices and biocompatible materials can allow customized medical parts to be made – from a new generation of smaller and potentially more powerful devices to restore lost vision and hearing functions, to bioresorbable scaffolds for tissue regeneration that can be molded to any body part and guide the growth of seeded cells, to implantable sensors and medical devices such as a defribulator to regulate heartbeats.

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Neil Gordon Co-Founder and President of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance

Neil Gordon is Partner-Nanotechnology with Sygertech and specializes in the commercialization of nanotechnology and MEMS. He is on the Advisory Board of the Nanotechnology Opportunity Report and the World Nanoeconomic Congress, was Judge for the SmallTimes Company of the Year 2002, Panelist at the NASA Global Nano Investments Forum, and is regularly interviewed as a leading nanotechnology industry analyst. He developed the InfoCast Nanotechnology Bootcamp course "Building the Business Case for Nanotechnology R&D and Products at Your Company".

Neil is also the President of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance, a nanotechnology trade association with affiliated organizations in the US and Europe. He has established the Canadian Nanotech SWAT Team, which was formed to create a Canadian National Nanotechnology Initiative. He co-organized the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Nanoscience Workshop, the Canada/Europe/US (CANEUS) Micro/Nano Space Conference, and the Canadian Nanomaterials Crossroads Conference. Neil has a Bachelor's Degree in Metallurgical Engineering from McGill University, and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario.


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The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) A non-profit organization, formed to advance the safe use of molecular nanotechnology. CRN was founded by Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder in December 2002. The vision of CRN is a world in which nanotechnology is widely used for productive and beneficial purposes, and where malicious uses are limited by effective administration of the technology.

See the other answers by:

Mark Ratner and Daniel Ratner April 14th, 2003.

Disruptive Technology: Any new technology that is significantly cheaper than current, and/or is much higher performing, and/or has greater functionality, and/or is more convenient to use. Will revolutionize worldwide markets by superseding existing technologies. "Paradigm shifting" is a well-worn connotation. Although the term may sound negative to some, it is in fact neutral. It is only negative to organizations that are unprepared for change, and fail to adapt, only to fall behind, and ultimately disappear. The results are not just evolutionary, they are revolutionary. Companies will go out of business because a new competitor emerges, just as the advent of the zipper eradicated so much of the button industry, the vacuum cleaner decimated the broom industry, and the personal computer wiped out the typewriter.

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