Will this Tiny Science Usher in the Next Industrial Revolution?

The government, industry and the academe are pouring billions of dollars on nanotechnology research and development. But will the science live up to the expectations? Examine its likely impact:

There's nothing small about the scope and promise of nanotechnology—the science of assembling materials, devices and systems from individual atoms and molecules. For years, government leaders have hailed nanotechnology as the "next industrial revolution" and predicted that, within a decade, the interdisciplinary field will fuel a worldwide market worth $1 trillion. Currently, thousands of manufacturers are spending millions of dollars on nanotech research and development. And the bandwagon doesn't end there.

While universities across the country have set up nanotech research facilities, federal laboratories are also hard at work on developing applications. Additionally, over the past three years, the science has drawn more than $1 billion in venture capital. And recently, startup companies with "nano" in their names have watched their stocks soar.

To top it all off, President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act in December, authorizing $3.7 billion in research and development funding over four years starting on Oct. 1. That's the most federal money ever allotted to a science and technology endeavor since NASA's Apollo program in the 1960s, says F. Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance in New York.

In short, the hype around the science of the tiny is anything but. "The buzz surrounding nanotech is comparable to that at the dawn of the digital revolution, which changed the face of how business operates," says Jack Uldrich, president of Minnesota-based Nano Veritas Group and co-author of The Next Big Thing is Really Small. "Unlike the Internet, however, which applied new technology to many old processes and businesses, nanotech is about creating entirely new materials, products, systems and markets, as well as making existing products faster, stronger and better."

In other words, many expect nanotechnology to have an even bigger impact on business than the advent of the digital age. So are we indeed looking at the next industrial revolution?

The answer is most likely. Even with only a few products on the market, nanotechnology is already shaking up industries. In one notable example, the science has enabled IBM to create super-spacious computer hard disks—a late 1990s innovation that has rattled the world of computer disk makers. The nano-enhanced computer disk drives could fit many gigabytes of information in a compact space using a new magnetic detector composed of exceptionally thin layers of metals, including a layer of ruthenium less than one-third of a nanometer in thickness. "The technology was so superior that everyone else had to start buying parts from IBM, because they couldn't manufacture competitive drives," Thomas Theis, head of physical science research at IBM Corp., tells The Washington Post.

And disk makers weren't the only ones jolted by the nanobased breakthrough. The voluminous disk drives, now able to pack hundreds of gigabytes of data, have enabled consumers to download massive amounts of music from the Internet onto a computer or to convert a cumbersome collection of compact discs into a digital library that can be stored in a small device like an iPod. In fact, the iPod's chief component is a diminutive computer disk based on IBM's innovation.

All these developments have sent record companies reeling. In a world of capacious disk drives, many people are now shunning record stores, forgoing compact discs and illegally sharing files over the Internet. As a result, record sales have taken a dive. And movie companies now find themselves vulnerable as well and are going to court to prevent the same fate from befalling them.

Film and camera companies have been hard hit as well. Because the super-spacious disk drives allow users to store tens of thousands of pictures electronically and have therefore made digital photography affordable, the film business is stumbling. Even Eastman Kodak Corp.—an American business heavyweight—has been forced to rethink its business model.

Without such capacious disk drives, the Internet as we know it would not be possible, says Stuart S.P. Parkin, the IBM scientist who was instrumental in developing the technology. Because of the nanobased innovation, computer disks are now able to hold all of the World Wide Web pages that companies and universities build. And IBM scientists including Parkin are now utilizing nanotechnology to find new data storage methods that can far surpass their last one.

Indeed, for a science that's only getting started, nanotechnology is already showing its ability to rewrite business rules in entire industries. While nobody knows the full extent of its impact, few doubt that it will be anything but huge. "There isn't any human artifact that we manufacture that won't eventually be dependent on the kinds of discoveries being made in laboratories now," says Theis. "The long-term consequences of this technology are going to be truly transforming."


If It's Nano, It's BIG
Justin Gillis and Jonathan Krim
Washington Post, February 22, 2004

Bush Signs Nanotechnology Bill
Roy Mark
InternetNews.com, December 4, 2003

Nanotech: Small Products, Big Potential
Austin Weber
Assembly Magazine, February 5, 2004

All Topics