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Two National Science Foundation (NSF) Events Help 'De-Mystify' Nanotechnology, as Well as Promote Small Business Success

By Marc Rothchild
Washington D.C.
Courtesy San Francisco Consulting Group and the NBU Newsletter.

At Tuesday March 19th’s Small Wonders Exploring the Vast Potential of Nanoscience symposium, panelists representing university, government, and corporate Nanotechnology initiatives presented updates to a captive audience that packed the amphitheatre and crowded the exhibit booths in the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. A follow-up event began the next day at the National Science Foundation building in Arlington, VA with a workshop entitled, Small Businesses Move to Nanotechnology.

Dr. Rita Colwell kicked off Tuesday’s National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored event by emphasizing that one of the major goals of the event was to “de-mystify” nanotechnology and show it is a “portal for opening a new world”.

The famous Dr. Richard Smalley delivered the keynote address. He first focused on the “Wet/Dry Frontier,” as one way to separate nanotechnology progress. The “wet frontier” includes all nano-machinery of cellular life (which is sometimes almost indistinguishable from biotechnology, while the “dry frontier” refers to new and improved forms of thermal and electrical conduction and new materials with enhanced properties that include greater strength, increased toughness and higher temperature resistance.

According to Smalley, nanotechnology’s future lies with the combination of wet nantoech’s “finesse” and “molecular perfection” and dry nanotech’s properties of resilience and strength. Dr. Smalley, who has been battling cancer for the past 5 years, enthusiastically talked of nanotechnology developments that will lead to disease-fighting cures and techniques (e.g., Zevalin – which has already been FDA approved), and also mentioned that “most diseases are molecular diseases which will have cures only on the nanometer scale.”

One of the cancer-fighting techniques he described involved the use of tiny alpha emitters to target and destroy cancer cells. The technique still has many engineering and design obstacles to overcome (such as ensuring that the emitters do not seep and wander beyond the targeted areas). This example illustrates the theme that ran throughout the day Nanotechnology will require inter-disciplinary efforts including work from materials scientists to chemists to engineers in order to become a reality sooner than later.

Nearly all presenters gave kudos to the NSF for monetary grants and assistance that has been enabling them to move from scientific hypotheses at their labs to proof-of-concept technology, so they can continue the process until they have a product or application to market.

In addition to accredited university professors and government leaders in attendance as presenters, there were also representatives from a few large industry leaders, including IBM, Kodak, and Motorola. Motorola’s Herb Gorokin talked about the mounting costs within the electronics and semiconductor industries (between now and the next 10 years, the cost to build a new computer-chip factory will rise from approximately $2.5 billion to as much as $20 billion). While he foresees that costs associated with silicon fabrication will continue to mount and silicon electronics will eventually fall, and he feels the use of molecular electronics is a way out, it will be somewhere in the timeframe of 2010-2020 before we see a terabit molecular circuit chip available commercially. Some nearer term applications, such as the ones Kodak’s Judy Barbur talked about producing in its Nano and Commercial Dispersion Center, include organic nanomaterials and easier assembly processes for OLEDs (an organic version of the LED), which will provide better properties including brighter pictures and higher contrasts. They will also be thinner, simpler to integrate and requiring less power.

University of Texas professor, Angela Belcher (who just announced she will be joining MIT) talked of the lessons we can learn from nature in her presentation entitled “Using Nature’s Tools to Synthesize Nanoelectronic Materials”. One example she gave was that of an abalone shell, which is 98 percent calcium carbonate (chalk), but as a shell it is 3,000 times stronger than chalk itself. By using a process that forces viruses to grow into sheets of semiconducting nanoparticles of zinc sulfide, Belcher’s research has combined the wet and dry that Dr. Smalley refer to earlier in the day.

At Wednesday’s workshop, small businesses had the opportunity to demonstrate advances enabled by government SBIR grants – which are “grants ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars to a couple of million dollars awarded to a small business to help them figure out how to commercialize research, so that they can fill the niche before Venture Capitalists show interest, but after the initial scientific research is done.”

Luna Nanomaterials, one of the presenters who benefited from SBIR grants, gave an educational talk on the development of Fullerene materials as well as an update on its advances in production, separation and product yield, and the progress of its own nanotechnology leading towards potential optical device and medicinal applications.

Nanotech Fundamentals

Governments have and will continue to play a key role in the process of moving their nations ahead in the advancement and commercialization of nanotechnology, so it is important to understand how the United States is organizing and preparing for this. Three key government activities are described below

1. National Nanotechnology Initiative: A Nanotech-specific part (approximately 0.6%) of the U.S. federal Research & Development budget – the Bush administration has budgeted a 17% increase to over $600 million for next year. This is for Fundamental Research – it provides sustained support to individual investigators and small groups doing innovative groundbreaking research.

Nanotechnology Funding is provided to at least 14 different agencies, in amounts ranging from requested grants of $1.4 million to $221 million for 2003, including the following
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Department of Defense (DoD)
  • Department of Energy (DoE)
  • National Institutes of Health
  • NASA
  • NIST
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • Dept. of Transportation/FAA
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Dept. of Justice

2. Small Business Investment Research (SBIR) program: Federal agencies with budgets of $100 million or more reserve 2.5% of their money to allocate SBIR grants to small technology-oriented firms. This funding is arranged in different phases. For example, the NIST/SBIR Program is worked out as follows

Phase I: $75K over 6 months can be given for a Feasibility Study/Proof of Concept

Phase II: $300K over 2 years can be given for R&D/Prototype Development

Phase III: Commercialization stage- non-SBIR funds are required and there is no official NIST participation

Additionally, there are certain requirements that must be met prior to each Phase. All research must be conducted in the U.S. and Phase I grantees are the only ones eligible for Phase II approval.

Key Note: In 2001, out of 184 Phase I proposals, only 14 awards were granted, and 8 out of 23 Phase II proposals received NIST/SBIR awards.

3. Advanced Technology Program (ATP): Through September 2001, this U.S. agency that invests in higher-risk technology R&D, has invested $51 million in nanotechnology projects. The majority of this money has been divided amongst categories has labeled ‘nanostructured materials’, ‘nanofabrication’, and ‘nanodiagnostics’, with a small percentage allocated to ‘nanomedicine’.

Key Note: Single small businesses are capped at receiving $2 million over three years, while there is no funding size limit on joint ventures that apply since ATP encourages teaming arrangements. These joint ventures are limited to 5 years of funding.

Reproduced with permission from the NBU Newsletter. Copyright © 2002 San Francisco Consulting Group except where indicated otherwise. All rights reserved worldwide.  Email To subscribe to the NBU Newsletter, please click HERE

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