WASHINGTON Congress is poised to double federal spending for nanotechnology research over the next three years. Legislators who oversee government support for basic research appeared convinced at a hearing on the state of nanoscience this week that a bigger government role is needed to boost the emerging technology.
Proponents said a larger U.S. investment in nanotechnology, which promises major advances in electronics, materials, biomedicine and national security, could spur private investment and commercialization.
Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., chairman of the House Science Basic Science subcommittee, said the panel is gearing up to pursue more research funding for nanotechnology in the fiscal 2000 spending plan. Smith said the panel wants to devise a peer-review process to ensure that increased government funding is targeted for the most promising applications.
U.S. spending for basic research has been in decline for several years, and both parties say they now want to increase it for targeted research programs like nanotechnology.
Fiscal 1999 spending for nanotechnology research totals $232 million, which is spread among six federal agencies. A national initiative designed to significantly increase U.S. research efforts would roughly double the amount of federal spending through fiscal 2001.
In March, an interagency working group on nanotechnology recommended the launch of a national initiative to boost research. The panel recommended that the initiative focus on these areas: processes and tools; nanostructure devices, materials and systems; applications; and training the next generation of engineers needed to develop commercial applications for the new technology.
Nanotechnology is increasingly seen as important to the U.S. semiconductor industry since its manufacturing road map only reaches down to 0.1-micron feature sizes, just short of nanostructure devices. Hence, it is being billed by some as the "second silicon revolution" and a key to future IC manufacturing.
Grant reviewers may be flooded with a wide spectrum of proposals however, since the term "nanotechnology" covers so many different visions and concepts. While the replacement of current silicon VLSI processes with a technology that operates at smaller physical scales may seem futuristic, visionaries have popularized the term with even more radical visions of the industry's future.
Theoretically, it should be possible at some point to build molecular structures that self-replicate, just as living cells are able to reproduce themselves. Other proposals involve using genetic engineering to harness living cells as miniature factories.
Such proposals have caught the public's imagination, resulting in profitable book sales and a number of institutes that have been set up to foster molecular-scale technology. But there are many other variants of the idea that involve new, precisely structured materials or self-assembling electronic circuits that may lead to practical results in the near term.
Nanotechnology's proponents told lawmakers that a federal initiative could "catalyze" the emerging industry. "This is a small science project," Richard Smalley, a chemistry and physics professor at Rice University, told the House panel. "This is where we are most effective."
Smalley, one of the researchers who discovered a new form of carbon called Buckminsterfullerene, is proposing a new industry based on a related structure called buckytubes. The molecular-scale wires could, among other things, create a nanoscale version of electronics based on carbon rather than silicon.
Smalley's group at Rice University has set up a manufacturing and design service to produce a variety of buckytubes, hoping to seed a new industry based on the materials.
Much of the research fund-ing for a U.S. nanotechnology initiative would be controlled by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which works extensively with the nation's universities on research projects.
Eugene Wong, NSF's assistant director for engineering, stressed that the timing of a nanotechnology effort is critical. Currently, "the time horizon is too long for private investment," Wong said. Yet "The time is right for a major initiative."
The Defense and Energy departments together control the lion's share of federal funding for nanotechnology research. Paul McWhorter, deputy director of the Microsystems Center at Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, N.M.), agreed that a funding boost would stimulate industry investment.
"The issue for the private sector is risk [and] when will they see the risk mitigated," McWhorter said.
With a 10- to 20-year time horizon for commercial applications, Smalley added that large research organizations backed by U.S. funding must begin to jump-start nanotechnology research. As with many interagency technology efforts, however, trade-offs between military and civilian research will have to be made.
Another concern will be control of intellectual-property rights once the technology finds commercial applications.
Despite those concerns, experts told Congress that the U.S. effort should be augmented with cooperative international research projects. With Japan and Europe also tar-
geting nanotechnology, Ralph Merkle, a research scientist at Xerox Corp.'s Parc facility (Palo Alto, Calif.), told Congress that international partnerships would provide a way to monitor competitors' research activities.