Nanotechnology Research comes of age
Nearly half a century has passed since Richard Feynman pointed out the tremendous potential in making structures at the atomic scale. I still remember, 15 years ago, attending seminars by Heini Rohrer, the Nobel laureate, pointing out the importance of nanoscience. From then on, nanoscience and technology has come a long way. Large government nanotechnology initiatives are now in place on all the five continents. Semiconductor industry is developing processes to mass produce structures with dimensions as small as a few nanometers. Nanotubes and nanoparticles are produces by the tons at low cost. Collaborations between different disciplines are common today. What does this change mean for nanoscience and technology research today?
Strain in the innovation chain: In the rush to make nanotechnology real, there has been a convergence of disciplines that has had a profound effect on how research is carried out and evaluated today. This means that funding agencies regroup funding from different disciplines and define new priorities and new conditions for the distribution of research funds. For scientists, all this change has been drastic. Scientists generally focus their work to carry out experiments and simulations at the extreme often fundamental level. For more than two centuries, scientific disciplines like physics and biology have been working independent of each other. This makes it challenging today to collaborate effectively, have a common research goal and work efficiently in a network of laboratories often on different geographic locations. There is far too less attention given to these challenges. In addition, one expects nanotechnology researchers to usher in the next technological revolution meaning that scientists today are asked to solve long standing industrial problems in production, transportation and energy related issues. One needs to only look at the calls of European research projects. One sees quickly that all this change, in a short time frame, creates a strain in the innovation chain and experimental rigor is often compromised in favor of very recent developments promising technological breakthroughs. Apart of that, experts familiar with several research disciplines to evaluate research projects are harder to find leading to the result that the gap between what is proposed in projects and reality is widening and scientists spend more time applying for funding and less on research. May be this is the aftermath of restructuring research and borrowing the management structure of large companies. In reshaping the funding system for research it appears that the top-down organization is favored by most funding agencies over a flat organization which existed earlier. There is certainly the potential that a well connected research communicate can self-organize in an efficient way. There is a risk that the innovation potential is reduced and research costs go up by structuring research in top-down fashion. Clearly more attention need to be given how innovation is best structured and funding is spent more efficiently in a constantly changing information society.
Nanotechnology everywhere? Whereas several years back we used to see the terms Nanoscience and Nanotechnology mentioned together, today we simply talk about Nanotechnology and it is taken for granted that fundamental science is somehow providing the much needed innovation aspect. What this actually shows is that our perception of science and technology has changed over a period of couple of years. Nanotechnology conferences have grown from a couple of hundred attendees to several thousand attendees within one decade and we see conferences concentrating on specific applications in Nanotechnology. Nanotechnology conferences witness the large range of the technology starting from advanced metrology, fabrication processes like imprint technology and structured materials leading to applications ranging from electronic devices, integrated circuits, photonics, materials, cancer detection and treatment, flat screens, personal care products, sports equipment and textiles. Do we know that nanotechnology is in our portable computer and phone? There are few branches in industry left which are not yet affected by the advancement in Nanotechnology.
Can we manage it? All this change has come fast and the provided resources are considerable. Never before has mankind witnessed such a convergence of disciplines, science and technology of this dimension. It is all very exciting and expectations are high. At the same time the complexity of consumer products has increased considerably and there is a real danger that we forget to educate the public and funding agencies at different levels on the differences between a real application and a possibility for application in the future. Nanotechnology has yet to show what it can do for society. There is a long way from discovery to real application. It all depends on how we understand what is needed to manage, to organize such a large undertaking.
Health and safety concerns: As nanomaterials are available in macroscopic quantities and applications for them are multiplying, the number of critical reports are increasing; and after the initial promise of super materials, we start to look at the downside of all this. Nanotechnology applications can be grouped into two main categories. Applications at the macro scale, taking composite reinforcement as an example, and micro or nano applications where a very small number or one single nano particle is used in a device. It is clear that health and environmental risks are considerably larger for applications of nanoparticles at macroscopic scales when compared to cases where only a few nanoparticles are used such as for high end products. To counter these risk issues, standardization and laws are going to be needed to control the impact on the environment.