U.S. investments in nanotechnology have escalated into the billions
of dollars in recent years. While scientists and analysts agree
such funding is advancing nanoscience research, they explained that
moving the resulting discoveries and materials into the market remains
one of the industry’s toughest challenges.
have a lot of technology languishing in the lab, because there’s
not enough resources, both in capital and talent, willing to take
this early stage risk,” said Scott Mize, president of Foresight
Nanotech Institute, a think tank based in San Francisco, Calif.
“One of the big structural issues that we’ve got here
in the United States is we sort of have a laissez-faire system for
commercialization. We don’t have a systematic way to get technologies
out of the lab and into commercialization.”
What it really requires is a company, usually a small company,
to realize the opportunity and go into the lab and put up the money
to take it through the steps to produce a product, he said. “I
think we need to have more investment in this high-risk, high-reward
Nanotechnology encompasses a broad range of sciences, but it is
generally defined as the understanding and control of matter at
the one to 100 nanometer scale. A nanometer is one-billionth of
Since 2001, the U.S. government has funneled about $1 billion a
year into nanoscience research and development through the National
Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal program that was established
to coordinate multi-agency efforts in nanoscale science, engineering
“The initiative was created by the government to make sure
there was enough funding to put money into the science community,”
said James Murday, executive secretary of the Nanoscale Science
Engineering and Technology subcommittee of the National Science
and Technology Council, which manages the initiative.
But scientists said the money funds only basic, or 6-1, research
and is divided up among numerous agencies, so that in the end there
isn’t much money left over to commercialize products.
“If we have another nanotech initiative, it should not all
be 6-1. There’s really a lot of stuff that’s ready to
move along and a lot of that stuff is a lot nearer term than people
think,” said Lawrence Kabacoff, program manager in the materials
division of the Office of Naval Research.
Murday said it will take time for the investment to show up in
products on the market. “It takes roughly 15 years from where
we understand the science to where it comes out of the commercial
market.” The initiative didn’t start until 2001, he
said, so the technology being pursued in labs today “won’t
show up for another 10 years.”
But Kabacoff has proved that with an adequate amount of money,
an integrated team and a focused goal, it is possible to expedite
that process in the nanoscience field.
In the mid-1990s, the Navy approached Kabacoff with a problem in
its minesweeper fleet. Biological matter accumulated inside the
bronze propeller shafts and scored them so badly that the minesweepers
were losing their propellers, said Kabacoff. Every 18 months, the
Navy would have to pull a minesweeper into dry dock and replace
the shaft. The Navy thought his research into wear-resistant coatings
might help alleviate the problem.
“Basically what they did was give me a pot of money and say,
‘you’ve got five years to get something into the fleet.’
It was focused from the very beginning on the application,”
His team developed a nano-ceramic coating of aluminum oxide and
titanium oxide that could be sprayed onto the surface of the shafts.
The coatings program was part of the Office of Naval Research affordability
“What we did was we got the fleet people involved in the
research and development,” said Kabacoff, so that by the end,
the people he had to convince to buy into the research were the
ones who had been part of it from the start.
“And that worked really well. I try to stick to that model
as much as I can. You have to give your customer ownership from
the very beginning,” he said.
The Navy coated minesweeper propeller shafts with the nano-ceramic.
A photo taken a few months ago shows little to no scoring. “All
I can tell you definitively is that’s been on there for four
years, and it hasn’t failed,” said Kabacoff. By not
having to pull the minesweepers into dry dock and replace the shafts
as before, the Navy is saving $1.5 million a year, he said. His
success in the military has led to potential commercial applications.
Companies in the oil industry are testing his coatings, he said.
The five-year program, unfortunately, came to an end, he said.
“I wish they’d do it again, because it was a wonderful
model. But with money so tight, it’s hard to do things like
that,” he said.
Foresight’s Mize said a program in Australia may provide
the U.S. with another solution.
The government in Australia provides money that matches private
funds on a three to one basis, he said. It then establishes a charter
and identifies the technologies that are attempting to negotiate
the “valley of death.” The funds are managed by venture
capitalist firms that agree to continue investing once the technologies
cross into the commercialization stage. In the end, the government
gets its principal investment back, and the venture capitalist makes
“This method, in my mind, addresses all the objections that
people normally level at having the government being involved,”
In April, Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., introduced the Nano Manufacturing
Investment Act, which proposes a similar public-private partnership
to help nanotechnologies become commercialized.
At a roundtable forum in San Jose, Calif., in August, he met with
representatives from public and private sectors to discuss commercialization
“I remain concerned about the federal government’s
role in helping to commercialize nanotechnology, because I am aware
that other nations that we compete against are focusing their federal
funding more on the commercialization of nanotechnology. To try
to address this problem, I have introduced the Nanomanufacturing
Investment Act, which would create a public-private investment partnership
that would focus on helping companies bring technologies through
the pre-competitive stage and get products to market,” he
“Based on testimony before the House Science Committee and
conversations with venture capitalists and manufacturers in the
nanotechnology field, we have created a program that is attractive
to private investors,” he said.
Research and development in nanotechnology has been moving incrementally,
said Richard Smith, founder of the Nanotechnology Policy Foundation.
But “now we’re getting to point where there’s
enough there. Where you can put out some grand challenges,”
he said, similar to what President Kennedy did with the race to
space. The technology was in place, and Kennedy challenged the country
to put a man in space.
The same can be done with nanotechnology, said Smith.
What the National Nanotechnology Initiative is doing is dividing
up that money and having problem solving on a small scale, he said.
“I would much rather see something that says, ‘our
goal is to protect the lives of soldiers. Our goal is to use nanotech
to allow everyone in the United States to be covered by health care.
NIH, there are your marching orders,’ ” said Smith.
“We’re really at the beginning of the nanotech revolution.
But it’s clearly here, in the sense that there are commercial
products out there,” said David Rejeski, director of the Project
on Emerging Nanotechnologies, a two-year, $3 million initiative
that was launched in April at the Woodrow Wilson International Center
“What we’re seeing now are product enhancements,”
he said, mentioning applications including nanoparticles in sunscreen
and cosmetics, nanocomposites in tennis balls and hockey sticks
and nanocoatings on clothing and furniture.
“Some of the things that are making it into the field today
is based on research that has been going on for 20 years,”
said Richard Colton, director of the Institute for Nanoscience at
the Naval Research Laboratory.
“Nanotechnology already is an enormously large, multibillion
industry, and people don’t realize it, because they don’t
associate a lot of things with nanotechnology,” said Kabacoff.
Companies that produce products containing nanotechnology are reluctant
to tout it as such because of liability issues, said Murday.
As a result, people aren’t informed, or know little about
it. And that could be a dangerous thing, said Rejeski.
“There’s very little information in the public,”
he said. “The danger is of people being surprised in potentially
During the summer, Rejeski conducted focus groups on nanotechnology.
When he showed these groups a list of nanotech-enabled products,
they were stunned, he said.
“Inventory suggests there’s 400 to 500 products that
are nanotech-enabled. I think the people tend to see this as something
coming down the road. But the fact is, it’s here,” he
The years 2010 to 2020 should be the glory years for nanotechnology,
“The products we’re seeing now are only the harbingers,”
he said. “There are some things starting to happen, and the
numbers are significant. On the level of dollars being invested
in the science and technology, I think it will come back. The technology
that’s going to come out of this is more than going to repay
the science investment.”