Handful of industries at leading edge of nano commercialization

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July 29, 2003 — From medicine to coatings, submarines and bowling balls, nanotechnology is making inroads into markets large and small. But only a handful of industries are specifically looking to nano for solutions, process improvements and outright advancements otherwise unachievable with current technology.

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The computer industry, for example, is shopping around for nanotech solutions. While today’s silicon-based transistors continue their downward size spiral, theoretical limits are being reached and the industry is looking to nanotubes and molecular memory to bridge the gap between today’s wish lists and tomorrow’s products.

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Automotive and aerospace are other industries that not only have nanotech targeted on corporate radar, but are singling it out to solve a myriad of problems, from improved sensors and lighter-weight materials to longer-lasting running boards and mirror housings, said Nathan Tinker, executive vice president of the NanoBusiness Alliance.

Still, according the Freedonia Group, the overall market for nanomaterials in 2002 barely cracked $200 million and mostly was made up of improved metal oxides, clays, ceramics and metals, said Mike Richardson, Freedonia’s industrial analyst.

The largest single market for any one nanomaterial today is the $75 million market for nanoscale silica used in chemical/mechanical planerization (CMP) slurries to smooth chips for the semiconductor industry. Coming in at number two isn’t some new, exotic material, either; it’s basically an improved version of rust: iron oxide for use in the pigment industry.

In 2002, $10 million worth of nanoscale iron oxide was sold, which amounts to 10 percent of the overall $200 million dollar market. Not bad in terms of dollars, but at $50 to $60 per pound, actual materials volume was miniscule compared with the pennies-per- pound bulk market. Nanoscale titanium dioxide and zinc are also widely used by cosmetics makers in transparent sunblock.

Nanotube sales barely even register compared with the overall markets the materials are selling into, said Tinker. For example, he calculates the plastics industry bought about $4 million worth of nanotubes in 2002. Advanced composites accounted for approximately $3 million in sales; fibers and textiles another $2.5 million; and research brought up the rear at around $850,000.

There is general agreement, however, that the best near-term markets are automotive, particularly for catalytic converters and sensors; aerospace, which is always looking to save weight, increase durability and has the deep pockets to do so; and defense.

US Global Nanospace Inc. in particular has tapped into the defense space with its line of nanofiber filters and G-Lam ballistic materials that can stop .50 caliber, armor-piercing projectiles. But, even with the huge increase in homeland security and defense spending (much of which has yet to be allocated), the company is still very much in development mode with only a few concrete sales under its belt.

“The turrets and things like that are very specialized items, so the quantities are reasonably small,” said John Robinson, US Global’s chairman and chief executive. “We’re not manufacturing lawn chairs that go into Wal-Mart.”

Other near-term markets looking for nanotech solutions include energy, in the form of improved photovoltaics, longer-lasting batteries and fuel cells; biosensors for detection of biological and chemical agents; and the chemical industry in its pursuit of better catalysts, said Neil Gordon, a partner at Sygertech Consulting Group Inc. and president of the Canadian NanoBusiness Alliance.

In fact, the chemical industry’s long-term Vision 2020 plan calls for a heavy reliance on nanotech for improvements across a wide spectrum of activities, Gordon said.

With so much interest in nano and the number of players growing daily, however, it is still too early to know which industries will be the early adopters and which will only flirt with nano until something better comes along, cautioned Bill Madia, Battelle Memorial Institute’s executive vice president of laboratory operations. That, as always with any emerging technology, is the $64,000 question.

“I don’t think anyone has a good handle on it,” he said. “One of the real challenges we’re all faced with in nanoscience is what’s going to break first. I wish I knew because I’d bet all my money on it and retire on an island somewhere.”

Still, if pressed, Madia would give the nod to nanomaterials as the most likely first area of widespread adoption and, therefore, near-term revenues.

“In recent decades information technology has often superceded materials as the hot button,” he said. “But that’s just a Johnny-come-lately phenomenon. If you’re going to make long-term money bets, I’d bet on materials again coming back.”

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