Ask Stephen Empedocles, director of business development at Nanosys in Palo Alto, CA, to sum up the state of the emerging nanotechnology market, and he’ll say, “confusion.” Today there are thousands of academic nanotech groups and more than a hundred companies that have “nano” in their names. Yet aside from a few odd items like stain-free pants and supercharged tennis balls that tout their nano ingredients, there are still few if any significant commercial products based on nanotechnology. That could be about to change.
This year’s TR100 honorees in the category “nanotech and more,” which includes materials, energy, and transportation, work in areas as diverse as electronics, fuel cells, and traffic modeling. But it is nanotech that is getting the most attention these days, and within that growing discipline, the focus of the TR100 is clearly on transforming laboratory curiosities into real commercial technologies.
If they succeed, mass-produced nano-based materials will soon be used to build devices that will reconfigure existing markets in areas as diverse as energy, medicine, and computing. “We need to show the world that in fact nanotech isn’t nanorobots that will swim through and clean out your arteries,” says Empedocles. “It’s real, valuable technology that you will have in your hands in the next three to five years.”
For his part, Empedocles is leading an effort at Nanosys to market efficient and supercheap nano-based solar cells that can go almost anywhere. The materials are made by mixing electrically conducting polymers with inorganic semiconductor crystals 10 to 60 nanometers in size. The materials convert solar energy to electricity with an efficiency approaching that of today’s silicon-based solar cells but at one-tenth the manufacturing cost. Moreover, the nano solar cells could be embedded in roofing tiles-or even exterior paint-to provide electricity for homes, office buildings, and public transportation systems. Nanosys is joining forces with Matsushita Electric Works, a large Japanese manufacturer of building materials, to make the product. Look for nano solar cells in roofing tiles to be on the market by the end of 2006, says Empedocles.
Nanosys has plenty of competition to get the first major nanotech products out the door, however. Two years ago, engineer Colin Bulthaup cofounded Kovio, now located in Sunnyvale, CA, to commercialize printable electronics based on a nanofabrication process he developed as an MIT graduate student. The technique uses special inks made of metal or semiconductor particles just one to five nanometers in size, coated with a layer of organic molecules and dissolved in a solvent. The ink is stamped onto a plastic substrate and heated to expose the particles, which melt into patterns that produce integrated circuits. Because each layer of the new chips can be made in one step, without etching or photolithography, manufacturing time and cost could be one-tenth those of conventional silicon circuits. “We’re not necessarily trying to compete with Intel, but we want to get as close to that as possible,” says Bulthaup. The initial goal, he says, is to break into the market within three years with cheap, lightweight, and rugged electronics that will form the processing backbones of laptop displays, radio frequency identification tags, and personal digital assistants.
The first wave of nanotech products will also influence biotechnology within the next few years, say TR100 members. Building on his graduate research at Cornell University, Stephen Turner, cofounder and chief scientific officer of Ithaca, NY-based Nanofluidics, is developing a nanotech device that traps and directly analyzes individual strands of DNA. The technique will allow researchers to do gene sequencing at least a thousand times faster than they can using conventional methods that require large samples and painstaking preparation. And that could mean faster and cheaper blood analysis and contaminant screening. “Nanostructures are really an enabling technology for biotech,” says Turner. He predicts that biochips sensitive and accurate enough for a number of commercial applications, including blood testing, could be available within five years.
Beyond the race to commercialize nanotech’s first products, TR100 researchers are also laying the foundation for fundamentally new kinds of devices. Peidong Yang, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, is building semiconductor nanowires that could eventually lead to advances in ultrahigh-speed optical communications, superfast processing, and ultradense data storage in computer chips. Yang is also developing nano-based thermoelectric materials that could be used to cool specific regions of chips, an application that becomes increasingly important as integrated circuits shrink in size. Indeed, the kinds of materials Yang is working on-fabricated on the nanoscale and, ideally, able to assemble themselves with little human intervention-could eventually transform the semiconductor industry by enabling the widespread manufacture of superhigh-performance electronics.
But that will take a while, and no one underplays the challenges in commercializing nano-based products, particularly in consumer electronics. “In a laboratory, it’s easy to demonstrate a very good transistor. But when you go to large-scale manufacturing, there are a lot of challenges,” says Zhenan Bao, a materials scientist at Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs. Bao is developing new kinds of organic semiconductors to make cheap, flexible displays and sensors. Common problems, she says, include layering different materials such that depositing one layer does not degrade the layers beneath it; getting molecules to organize into useful, reliable, and reproducible patterns; and connecting these structures to the macroscopic world.
In the long run, the interfacing problem may be nanotech’s greatest technical challenge. “You have to do more than get transistors to lay out,” says physicist Jordan Katine, who is developing nano-based magnetic materials for computer memory systems at Hitachi Global Storage Technologies in San Jose, CA. “You need to address them, connect them in a controlled way, and get information in and out.”
Amidst the confusion surrounding nanotech, however, the TR100 honorees say one thing is clear: this is a crucial time for the fledgling nanotech business. “This industry is going to be built on whether a few companies are able to deliver real technology,” says Empedocles. It is also likely that the leaders of these companies-many of whom you’ll meet in the next few pages-will become the new industry experts. And what they accomplish in the next several years could determine the future of not only nanotech and materials science, but also energy, computing, transportation, and biotech.
TR100 Startups in Nanotech, Materials, and Energy
|Kovio (Sunnyvale, CA)
|Nano-based particles and fabrication of cheap, printable, inorganic electronics for displays, radio frequency ID tags, and computers; has raised $19 million in venture capital
|Nanosys (Palo Alto, CA)
|Nanocrystal-based materials to make cheap, efficient solar cells, electronics, and sensors; has raised $55 million
in venture investments
|Luxtera (Carlsbad, CA)
|Tiny optical-transmitting chips for ultrahigh-speed, low-power communications and processing; has raised $24 million in capital
|ThingMagic (Cambridge, MA)
|Radio frequency ID tag readers and data security systems for logistics and inventory tracking; “agile reader” that works in all major frequency bands and interprets most radio frequency protocols
|SFC Smart Fuel Cell (Munich, Germany)
|Micro fuel cells that use methanol to power laptops, traffic signals, and security systems; has raised 12 million euros from venture capitalists and other sources
|Nanofluidics (Ithaca, NY)
|Nano-based structures to do single-molecule DNA analysis, gene sequencing, and contaminant screening
TR100 Nanotech Honorees
Lynn, David M.
Muller, David A.
Ramirez, Ainissa G.
Waller, S. Travis
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