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Nanotech is hot for mundane products

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Updated: 6/10/2004 2:10 pm
By Harold Brubaker
Knight Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA - Nanotechnology is the latest "greatest technology revolution" ever.

To skeptics, such hyperbole is a sure sign that the science of manipulating individual molecules will ultimately fail to meet expectations, as happened with industrial ceramics, superconductors and other scientific innovations.

But to L. Louis Hegedus, head of research at Atofina Chemicals Inc., nanotechnology is simply going through the phases any promising new technology must.

Right now, nanotechnology "is somewhere between wild hype and settling down to reality," said Hegedus, who directs 100 researchers with doctorates in King of Prussia, Pa.

Reality for Atofina and other chemical companies means dramatically improved - though still relatively mundane - products, such as more durable coatings, stronger plastics and more sophisticated electronics materials.

"People need to realize that not all of nanotechnology is far-out science," said Mindy N. Ritter, director of nanotechnology research for Business Communications Co. Inc., a Norwalk, Conn., research firm.

Products based on nanomaterials are on the market today, she said. They include heavy-duty sunscreen that goes on clear instead of with a white smear. The metal oxide particles that block ultraviolet rays are so small that they do not reflect light, making them invisible to the human eye.

"On the other hand, it might be a decade or more before we see the emergence of targeted drug-deliv4ery systems based on nanoparticle carriers and computer chips fabricated from carbon nanotubes or semiconductor nanowires," Ritter said, citing a couple of the most highly touted research areas.

Old-line chemical companies view nanotechnology as a path to higher-value products that can help them overcome factors that have been squeezing the industry's profits, including rising costs for natural gas.

The field derives its name from the nanometer, which is one-billionth of a meter. Its realm is 100 nanometers or less. The study of matter at that level was made possible by the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope by researchers at IBM in the early 1980s.

In recent years, the federal government has become a big backer of nanotechnology, allocating $849 million for research this year and pledging a total of $3.7 billion in federal spending for nanotechnology research in the fiscal years 2005 to 2008.

California and Massachusetts are considered to be the hot spots of nanotechnology. Pennsylvania ranked seventh among the leaders in the field, according to a recent report by Small Times, a business magazine on small technology. "Pennsylvania exploits what it has very effectively. It makes the most out of its research, out of its business," said publisher Steve Crosby.

New Jersey comes close to the top 10, but is held back by high costs, according to Small Times.

Executives at area chemical companies stressed that nanotechnology is not a new industry per se. "It's a means to an end, not an end in itself," said Jeffrey DiPinto, business development manager for nanotechnology at Air Products & Chemicals Inc. of Allentown, Pa.

Global demand for nanomaterials was $7.4 billion last year, according to Business Communications. The firm included in that category the long-established markets for carbon black rubber filler in plastics and other materials, metal particles used in the catalytic converters on vehicles, and silver particles used in photographic film and paper.

Atofina's nanoscale products include a metal oxide coating for window glass that keeps heat in or out. Air Products has a nanoscale insulating material that prevents cross-talk between layers in a semiconductor chip.

Much of the advantage of working on a nanoscale comes from "minimizing the trade-offs you have to deal with in the non-nano world," DiPinto said.

For example, it is common to add carbon black to plastics and other engineered materials to increase their electrical conductivity. But doing so can reduce the material's strength or have other negative effects.

Soon, engineers will be able to add a smaller amount of carbon nanotubes, giving the material greater conductivity without sacrificing other desired characteristics, said Yury Gogotsi, director of the A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute at Drexel University.

In the past, materials added to a plastic or a coating to improve its resistance to impact or abrasion would make the plastic more difficult to mold or make the coating opaque.

Gogotsi, who helped develop a nanoscale coating that has been licensed by a Chicago manufacturer of seals, regularly meets with companies looking for ways to exploit nanotechnology. He is optimistic about the field's future.

It has brought about "a change in the way we develop materials," he said. From the outset, engineers can ask: "What are the properties we want?"

At the same time, Gogotsi, who received his doctorate in 1986 for work on ceramics, knows all about the hype that can surround new technologies. He cited papers in his dissertation that "were predicting that by 2000 we would all be driving cars with ceramic engines," he said.

That did not happen, but not because ceramic engines were a failure. "The prices of gas had never achieved the levels that would have made ceramic engines competitive," Gogotsi said.

Imagination ran ahead of reality, said Hegedus, adding that that is not necessarily a bad thing as long as the objectives are kept in an economic context.

"If you are not an imaginative researcher," Hegedus said, "you can accomplish everything you set out to do, but that might not be very much."


© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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