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Posted: May 8, 2008
Indiana ready to flex subatomic muscles with nanotechnology advances
(Nanowerk News) A cure for cancer, a solution to rising fuel prices or a whole new generation of super-strong materials coming out of the Hoosier state? This and much more possibly lies within the emerging realm of nanotechnology, according to a covey of national nanotechnology experts in Indiana on May 2, 2008.
“The Midwest really is the hotbed of nanotechnology growth,” declared George Adams at the statewide presentation on new rules for the new economy.
Flush from the announcements of new nanotech centers at Notre Dame and research advancements at Purdue, Indiana showcased its lucrative subatomic wares at the TechPoint- and Barnes & Thornburg-organized presentation, which was teleconferenced across the state to universities, business centers and tech parks. When commercialized nanotech starts hitting its stride around 2015, many experts expect the technology to herald in a literal second Industrial Revolution.
“Just as we look at the 19th century as ‘pre-electronic,’ we’ll soon look back at the 20th century as ‘pre-nanotechnology,’” Adams proclaimed to the statewide audience of business executives, government leaders and academia.
Adams – who serves as associate director for programs at Purdue’s Network for Computational Nanotechnology – joined Alan Seabaugh (associate director at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Nano Science & Technology) and Scott Simmonds (an attorney who now works in intellectual property at Barnes & Thornburg) for the impressive discourse on nanotech advances in the Hoosier state.
“Many stars are coming into alignment for Indiana,” said Seabaugh, who stated that the microelectronics industry is entering a major transition stage.
Companies that specialize in semiconductor technology understand the current physical limitations in the industry and recognize that nanotech represents an all-new frontier where dramatic advances can be made. While the university environment currently dominates much of worthwhile nanotech research, Adams says commercialization is already taking place.
Thousands of light-emitting diodes in traffic lights current deploy commercialized nanotech. This results in maintenance-free lights that last years longer than conventional illumination. Adams says super-strong materials based on variants of carbon nanotubes are commercially feasible and could dramatically change thousands of everyday products.
The potential? Seabaugh said: “This is a trillion-dollar industry. Indiana is forming the right [nanotech] community here.” One of the nanotech items that captured Seabaugh’s attention is the possibility of developing a subatomic computer with a “whole logic device made possible by nanotech switches in a magnetic field”. This is a product that’s already being researched at Notre Dame.
If such functions are perfected at the subatomic level, then the concept of data storage takes on a whole new vision. Molecular-based hard drives could store and restore nearly limitless amounts of data. With advances piling up, who’s going to fund the commercial development of nanotechnology?
“While capital has been stepping up, intellectual property is the challenge,” said Adams, which explained why TechPoint included an intellectual property attorney on the panel.
Simmons says nanotech as a defined industry now faces a broad range of major challenges from securing patents to companies that put “nanotech” in a corporate name just because it gives off a high-tech branding aura. Of the 180,000 patents issued by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office between April 2007 and the end of March 2008, about 300 were related to nanotech. This represents a tiny 0.1 percent of all patents issued during that time.
Because of the newness of the technology, securing a useful patent may be problematic. This could directly impact the commercial value of the nanotech innovation and its ability to enter a market profitably, Simmons warned. In effect, nanotech is a “very broad field without a clear-cut definition,” according to Adams. “We’re on the frontier of what we know well and what we know well enough.”
The IP issue, though, isn’t slowing research down. Because carbon nanotubes represent “the most thermally conductive material we know,” the nanotech product can potentially be deployed in numerous applications that capture everyday waste heat and redirect or create new energy.
Adams explained how a nanotech-treated tailpipe, which typically vents massive amounts of unused heat, can capture and generate electricity through passive means. This can perhaps improve the mileage of a hybrid car by as much as 10 percent.
All three panelists described how a better understanding of cell functions at the molecular and subatomic levels will likely bring a much higher understanding of how proteins function in the body. This understanding could lead to more effective pharmaceuticals and their applications.
Nanotechnology could revolutionize the treatment of diabetes with the development of tiny, pre-loaded needles that are so small a patient doesn’t feel pain when injecting insulin. Adams described what could become a “biomedical lab on a chip” that could identify complex bacteria without cultures or Petri dishes (all in less than an hour).
So what’s coming up for nanotech and Indiana? Adams concluded: “Energy, health care and life sciences can all be transformed with nanotech.”