Nanomaterials: Recent Advances in Technology and Industry
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The emerging field of Nanotechnology, including nanomaterials, nanoscale devices, and nanobiotechnology, has been purported to impact every aspect of our life in the decades to come. The race to capitalize on Nanotechnology, “the next big thing,” began in the wake of the abating Internet mania in the year 2000, although basic and applied research on various aspects of this field has been intensely pursued since the early 1990s. For a comprehensive review of scientific advances in this field during the 1990s, the reader is referred to the World Technology Evaluation Center Report. We should all remember that studies in catalysis and small metal particles began more than a century ago and represents one of the most significant applications of nanomaterials to date. In many instances, Nanotechnology has been referred to as a “disruptive technology,” the elegant and pithy phrase coined by Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen. With the rapid influx of venture capital into the up-and-coming Nanotechnology industry (although it is a far cry from the investment activity that was seen in the mid-1990s with the then emerging internet industry), start-ups are realizing the need for sustainable competitive advantage in what is now becoming a crowded space. Given the scientific evidence so far, the potential for Nanotechnology to beneficially impact various aspects of our life and society exists, but attempting to predict them all at this stage is futile.
To put this field in perspective to the uninitiated, it has often been mentioned that Nanotechnology today is in the same state computers were in the 1960s. Perhaps, a more apt comparison should be to the Industrial Revolution that began in the late eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution enabled products that were already in use to be made cheaper, faster, and of uniform and of predictable quality. The Nanotechnology Revolution underway has the potential to impact the performance of existing products, but not so much in terms of cost. At the same time, Nanotechnology has the potential to make possible new products that would otherwise not be possible. All of this has spawned the growth of Nanotechnology as an industrial sector, while in reality it is an aggregate of several different industries brought together in ways never seen before. Accordingly, it is helpful to compare this new industrial sector to the several industries that came into existence during and after the Industrial Revolution: railroad, automobile, commercial aviation, and most recently, internet. Several hundreds of companies came into existence in the initial stages of each of these industries: there was a time when there was a large number of companies with motor works being the common suffix for a majority of them. This is much the same today with the word nano being the prefix in the name of the company. Based on information garnered by market research entities such as CMP Cientifica, Business Communication Company, and Nanobusiness Alliance, the number of companies worldwide that are active in nanotechnology at the present time can be estimated to be in excess of 400. As it has happened in all of these industries, the initial flurry of activity fades in a few years as the companies come to grips with the realities of the market forces. The start-ups burn through the invested capital, and either close shop or morph into a company with a different objective. The stage had been set by the year 2001 for this story line to be repeated in the Nanotechnology industry, except that the financial climate has been dismal since that time, with investment capital becoming a scarce commodity.
Just as it is said that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, an objective definition for Nanotechnology depends on the aspect of the field that the person is involved with. To an oncologist working with nanotechnology, it could mean targeted drug delivery to cure certain specific types of cancer, while to a scientist involved with computing, Nanotechnology could refer to molecular switches. The purpose of this article is to look at technological and commercial advances made to date in the area of Nanomaterials either enabling new products or improving existing products. The focus is on products having the potential to beneficially impact present markets, as opposed to a number of markets that may emerge in the future. Moreover, special emphasis is given on applications where the presence of nanoscale features adds certain functionality, instead of simply providing a high-surface-area template.