BOSTON Amid the tepid news about the economic recovery, the Nano Science and Technology Institute's annual Nanotech conference here showed evidence of robust growth and growing optimism about the industrial future of nanotechnology.
Conference coordinators were seeing three times the participants from last year, and keynoter Clayton Teague, who heads the government's National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, noted that the recent National Nanotechnology Initiative was approved by an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress. Indeed the atmosphere at the conference recalled the enthusiasm of semiconductor conferences of past decades.
"Policy makers, the administration, the Congress and industry leaders are really looking to this field as a major contributor to our economy in the coming years," said Teague. "As we approach a billion dollars a year I assure you that people on [Capitol] Hill are beginning to be very focused on what kind of return will be coming from this one particular area of science and technology."
Teague said enthusiasm for nanotechnology is a global phenomenon with over 40 countries launching similar national initiatives. The worldwide investment in nanotech topped $3 billion last year. "While it is bound to level off, I haven't seen any indication of that yet," Teague added.
The problem of defining what exactly constitutes nanotechnology a frequent topic at conferences takes on a certain urgency for Teague since his agency is helping to define research activities for industry, academia and the government.
He described a four-point framework the government will use in deciding which projects to fund. First nanotechnology systems must involve components with size scales between 1 to 100 nanometers. "We chose the lower limit to exclude single atom or only a few atom systems. I sometimes have to remind myself that a cubic nanometer can contain between 500 and 1,000 atoms," he said.
The second criteria requires that materials and systems have a particular function because of their size. Many of the significantly new aspects of nanotechnology derive from unique quantum mechanical surface and volume effects.
The third criteria is the ability to control effects at those size scales. "You must be able to see, measure and manipulate in this nanometer regime," Teague said.
The fourth criteria is often missed in nanotechnology discussions, said Teague: The ability integrate nanoscale effects into a full functioning system, which means integrating effects and devices at the nanometer, micrometer, millimeter and meter scales, so that nanosystems become accessible to designers.
Semiconductor technology falls within the boundaries of that definition since deep EUV lithography is now below 100 nanometer feature sizes. David Tennenhouse, director of research for Intel Corp., described how nanotechnology will extend Moore's law. He described many of the techniques now being devised to extend existing VLSI devices down to 25 nm gate lengths. However, at that point, the actual technology strategies that will be appropriate are not know. Beyond that somewhat cloudy segment of the technology roadmap, nanotube- and nanowire-based circuits will emerge around the year 2020, he predicted.
The rapid pace of the nanotechnology revolution is not due simply to new nanoscale instruments and tools, said Teague. The ability to integrate so many diverse areas of technology developing over the past 40 years is probably the best explanation of the field's momentum.
"Many of my colleagues ask me what is so special about nanotechnology, since they have been working at the nanoscale for decades. I think the answer is that nanotechnology is now integrating all of those diverse areas into a single nanoscale technology," Tennenhouse said.
The week-long agenda of technical sessions illustrates that concept. A broad range of topics include: bio-nano systems, biomolecular motors, micro fluidics, biosensors, MEMS, nano-optics, advanced semiconductors, nanostructuring and assembly. Other sessions will cover a wide variety of commercial tools that can be used to advance nanotechnology.