European nano roadmap paves way for next decade


By Genevieve Oger

For investors, selecting which nanotechnologies to favor over others can be a little like looking into a marble ball to see what the future holds. The European Commission wants to take some of the guesswork out of the equation. That’s why it has invested about $800,000 to draw up a nano roadmap aimed at identifying the technologies most likely to develop into applications by 2015.

“Roadmaps are key to defining Europe’s research policy,” said Renzo Tomellini, head of the nanotechnology unit at the European Commission. “They serve to identify areas of interest and contribute to establishing priorities in future research actions.”

At issue is the European Union’s 7th Framework Program, a research budget of almost $90 billion to be spent on scientific and technological research between 2007 and 2013, $5.8 billion of which is to be allotted to nano projects. Individual European member states and private businesses are expected to invest in projects as well.

The final roadmap was handed to the European Commission in December. It featured three individual nano plans: one on the future of materials, one on health and medical applications and a third on energy. The document of a few hundred pages was a collaborative pan-European effort. Nanotec IT, the Italian Center for Nanotechnology, acted as coordinator, working with groups in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, the Czech Republic, Finland and Israel. Elvio Mantovani, Nanotec IT’s managing director, said the nano roadmap looks only 10 years into the future because it wants to be as accurate as possible.

“Any prediction is difficult, but the farther you look into the future, the less reliable the prediction becomes,” Mantovani said. “A shorter time frame is safer, but still a prediction.”

The partners began the project two years ago by sending a detailed questionnaire to about 350 nano experts worldwide. About 60 percent of them responded. Answers were analyzed and formed the basis of a second questionnaire sent to the same experts for confirmation and further probing. Ottilia Saxl, chief executive of the Scotland-based Institute of Nanotechnology and one of the roadmap partners, said the second round of questioning was crucial to getting an accurate picture.

“There is a tendency for experts working on solar energy to say solar energy will be the most important in the future, those working on wind power will say wind power, and those working on nuclear will say nuclear,” she said, explaining that sending the second questionnaire helped draw up a more comprehensive view of things to come.

The European Union commissioned the roadmap and funded 80 percent of it for its own use. But the document will be publicly available online. The idea is to share the information so that small- and medium-size businesses, research institutions and the public can benefit.

The roadmap isn’t going to add to the strategy of large chemical companies like Degussa or BASF, “because they have people working on this kind of thing internally,” said Laszlo Bax, partner at Willems and Van den Wildenberg, R & D strategic consultants in the Netherlands and Spain and roadmap partners. “But there is a huge number of companies below that mark who need this information and can’t afford to carry it out.”

The roadmap team adopted a pragmatic, application-based approach. Transforming research into marketable products is one of Europe’s top priorities and one of the region’s shortcomings. Europeans are generally good at producing top-notch research and nanotech-related scientific publications. But they haven’t been as effective at transforming this knowledge into products and services, through patents and startups. According to the European Commission, European companies apply for 170 patents a year per million people, compared with 400 for American companies. The EU imports $28 billion more high tech products than it exports.

Large multinational organizations like the European Commission sometimes get flack for spending too much time and energy doing research, instead of focusing their resources on real work. But Bax contends that spending a little bit on research ensures funding is allocated more efficiently. “Any money you invest in research to prune the different aspects of current research is better spent than funding projects with less focus.”