Nanotechnology - Moving beyond the hype

Despite significant scientific progress in the field of nanotechnology in the last few decades, currently the most formidable displays of the power of nanoscale processes are performed by nature not artificially and exist inside every single one of us, such as the autonomous replication of the genome and the construction and self-assembly of protein from base amino acids.

As a result, it seems reasonable to assume that the route to ultra-advanced computational, engineering and construction projects can in many cases only realistically be achieved through mastery of matter at the atomic scale.

However, nanotechnology has a long way to go to live up to these substantial expectations. Advanced nanotech applications such as utility fogs or graphene processor chips that operate in the multi hundred gigahertz range are nowhere near commercially viable or even technologically possible. However, I have little doubt that over the coming decades we will see significant strides made towards achieving and perhaps even exceeding these goals, such is the seemingly unstoppable and synergistic nature of scientific progress. It is not a question of "if?", but one of "when?" and probably as importantly, "how do we make the when part happen faster and safely?".

If this seems overly optimistic of the potential of nanotechnology it's useful to get an idea of just how far behind nature humans are in say, computing. Consider Tianhe-2, completed mid 2013 in Guangzhou, China and the most powerful super computer ever constructed, it performs around 30 quadrillion floating point operations per second, covers an area equivalent to three tennis courts and consumes 20 megawatts of power. The human brain by contrast uses up less power than a standard lightbulb and despite being small enough to fit inside your head is, according to futurist Ray Kurzweil, in the same ball park when it comes to calculations per second.

Dr. Richard Smalley, Nobel laureate in Chemistry (1996) for the co-discovery of Buckminsterfullerene with Prof. Harry Kroto back in 1985, testified in a 1999 Congressional hearing on nanotechnology, stating "The impact of nanotechnology on health, wealth, and lives of people will be at least the equivalent of the combined influences of microelectronics, medical imaging, computer-aided engineering, and man-made polymers developed in this century". I think this quote by the late "father of nanotechnology" succinctly and articulately sums up the scope of the potential of nanotechnology. It is not really a "sector", since it has applications across so many sectors. It is more of an "age", and at least equivalent to the industrial revolution in scale.

So, bridging this gap and moving up through technological readiness levels will be a sizable endeavour, however you have to walk before you can run (or indeed place a 40,000km weighted carbon nanotube tether in geosynchronous orbit). Technology development and integration of nanomaterials into industry requires producers that are turning a profit and therefore largely self sustainable. If producing and improving these materials is not a commercially feasible enterprise, progress in their development becomes stifled, with government rather than industry footing the R&D bill. Consider the analogue of space travel. Now that it is slowly becoming commercially viable it is no longer exclusively the domain of government funded projects and is on the cusp of experiencing a renaissance of innovation, with multiple orbital and sub-orbital space tourism companies developing flight systems and technology. Virgin Galactic is arguably the best known of these.

The nanomaterial market has a lot of growing up to do. An important prerequisite of a mature market is that producers have a stable order book and are able to finance production while buyers have secure sources of supply, ideally through multiple producers. A common thread in discourse surrounding the nanotechnology industry is the lack of available investment (or lack of suitable investment options) for companies engaged in nanomaterial fabrication. Governments have been happy to pledge money towards university institutes to fund research and develop various process technologies. But when it comes to applying the technology in the production phase the funding becomes scarce. What many nanomaterial producers need is access to capital, but other than relinquishing equity in their companies and fund raising, how can this be achieved? The answer is access to a fair and efficient commodity marketplace allowing producers to mobilize capital from industrial end-users to upscale production. What's more, the liquidity here is not provided by speculators, but is from actual order driven industry demand for physical use of the materials (i.e., there are no speculators or investors involved).

Another barrier facing producers of nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes or graphene is being able to do so in the required volume, purity and (critically) price for widespread acceptance by industry. This is in part due to the technical difficulties faced when manipulating matter at the nanoscale, especially if the end product is macroscopic in nature. Appropriate demand from industry should significantly reduce the production cost while improving process quality, especially as production of many types of nanomaterial is modular and thus very readily scaled up.

One area of focus for many producers aiming to avoid the so called "valley of death" should be on process technology to embed their products in a commercially viable way into bulk materials. This is because industry buyers are unlikely to have a purchasing requirement for raw nanomaterials. Whilst they can theoretically improve properties as additives, nanomaterials cannot generally be applied directly into a manufacturer's processes. 

Engineering plastics incorporate performance additives in the form of particulates or long fibres in the polymer matrix and are frequently and effectively used in construction as replacements to metals and wood for their lightweight, chemical resistance, flexural modulus etc. For currently produced nanomaterials, this provides an obvious marketplace for development of new composites and therefore commercial uses. An example of this would be embedding functionalised CNTs homogenously into a polymer to improve conductivity and tensile strength. It is important to note however, that many steps are required to prepare and mix the nanomaterial into the polymer in a way that optimises its effects. Inadequate mixing equipment, lack of binding to the polymer, agglomeration and using incorrect loadings are all issues than can occur to turn a potentially excellent performance additive into an expensive waste of money. There is no shortage of manufacturers and engineers who await the next generation of materials to supersede incumbent technologies such as carbon fibre composites or silicon. Clearly they will be slow to accept materials that have not proved themselves beyond a laboratory benchtop, regardless of their theoretical properties.

The recent past is littered with companies that focused entirely on raw material production and failed commercially despite some of them acquiring many millions in funding. If these materials aren't able to impart their mechanical strength, electrical conductivity and a host of other improvements into viable products, then they are just extremely overhyped and overpriced powders and dispersions. It is irrelevant how rare, difficult and expensive to make the materials are if there are no immediate practical uses for them. It is important therefore that producers of nanomaterials, carbon based or otherwise, realise that establishing effective supply chains while remaining autonomous and being guided by the demands of industry are just as important as their products.

It behooves producers to engage in research to that end but they aren't charities and industry has to be prepared to spend R&D dollars without taking unfair advantage of the mismatch in resources between the buy and sell side. This can be avoided by providing producers with channels where they can draw down appropriate capital to fund production (i.e. upscale financing). Of course there are risks, both regulatory and commercial, but that is simply the nature of R&D and can be largely mitigated by leveraging the right network of experts and with a collaborative directed focus. Companies that embrace innovation in this way are best placed to realise rewards that, it is increasingly apparent, will be significant.

Kurzweil: The singularity is near 2005. p126
Prepared Statements for House Science Committee, Subcommittee on Basic Research, June 22, 1999,