"Nanotechnology is nothing less than a revolution, and today Oregon is leading the nation in tools for nanotechnology," said Kohrt. "Today, nanotechnology accounts for less that one-tenth of 1 percent of the gross national product [under $12 billion], whereas by 2014, it will be 15 percent, or $2.6 trillion. And 50 percent of the microelectronics market will involve nanotechnology." As many as 10 million people will work in nanotech by then, he said.
Kohrt argued that PNNL and Onami are the right venues for developing nanotechnology, which does not fit the traditional venture capitalist's model. Instead of creating products, nanotechnology merely creates better particles, tubes, crystals and other nanoscale items that can be used to create improved materials. These nanoenabled materials will then be used to create better products.
Unfortunately, this value chain disconnects the research-and-development expense of the nanoscale particles from the breakthrough profit stream of the products enabled by nanoscale materials, making venture capitalists hesitant to invest in nanotechnology, Kohrt said.
Kohrt alleged that the lack of standalone products makes national labs cooperating with universities and industrial R&D teams the most logical place to foster nanotechnology breakthroughs. But he also said a whole host of unanticipated consequences are now dogging nanotechnology from disruptive breakthroughs in unexpected areas to secretive behavior by the industry, which might stifle the free flow of information when there is a breakthrough.
"In nanotechnology, a lot more breakthroughs are going to depend on trade secrets rather than on patents," Kohrt said. "The less-developed countries also are less developed in patent protection, and that will make many nanotechnology breakthroughs proprietary rather than disclosed in a patent."
Breakthroughs on Onami's wish list include microfabricated systems for the miniaturization of energy systems. Onami also wants to miniaturize chemical and biomedical reactors by using many small, inexpensive microfluidic-based reactors, rather than the large, expensive and wasteful reactors now in use.
The microreactors that Onami envisions will also benefit the reactor industry by producing nanomaterials more efficiently, with higher precision and lower waste.
Also, Onami is pursuing miniature heating and cooling systems and high-temperature, corrosion-resistant microstructures that could, for instance, allow the on-vehicle production of hydrogen fuel. Other research areas include specific functionalized high-precision gold nanoparticles, bulk superlattices, "green" synthesis techniques and improved methods of nanoscale metrology.
Onami was founded in 2000 as a collaboration among PNNL and Oregon's three public research universities OSU, Portland State University and the University of Oregon.