MARLBOROUGH, Mass. Divining what is meant by nanotechnology and when products will arrive was the focus of a nanotechnology conference here that concentrated less on technology and more on applications.
Rather than assembling a group of technology visionaries, the NanoEngineering World Forum held here this week featured venture capitalists and laboratory directors as well as electronic engineers and researchers. Some predicted nanotechnology would usher in the next round of technology innovation.
The definition of nanotechnology turns out to have a strong relationship to the question of when it will arrive. If nanotechnology means manufacturing systems and robots organized at the atomic level, then it will be many decades to any commercial fall out. But if nanotechnology means tools and components built on that scale, then it has arrived, said Stephen Fonash director of the Penn State University Nanofabrication Facility.
Fonash showed a slide with viles containing engineered nanoclusters in solution. "You can order these on the Internetnanotechnology is here today," he said.
Several nanoengineered systems are either close to implementation in commercial products or actually at the commercial stage, he added.
One example is a flat panel TV Samsung plans to introduce later this year that uses carbon nanotubes as field emitters. Other examples include: florescent tags attached to biomolecules made from quantum dots; a chip-based system that uses nanopores to directly read the nucleotides on a strand of DNA; and an artificial pancreas based on arrays of silicon nanopores.
James Murday, Chemistry Division Superintendent at the Naval Research Laboratories (Washington) said 1960 was the begenning of the first revolution in nanotechnology. That was when breakthroughs in understanding surface chemistry fueled the electronics revolution.
That revolution fits into a repeating pattern of technology "pulses" that have occurred at 50 to 60 year intervals over the last century, added Roger Trew, head of North Carolina State University's Department of Electronics and Computer Engineering.
Trew proposed a metric for technology revolutions defined by the time it takes to supply products to 50 million users. It was 38 years for radio, 13 years for television and only 4 years for the Internet.
The significant technology event of the 1990 was the assembly of a complete set of tools for working at the nanoscale. Materials growth systems, nanolithography processes, atomic probe imagers and manipulators and nanoscale test and measurement tools are now widely available at a reasonable cost, Trew said.
Those developments indicate that nanotechnology is going to be the key enabler for the next technology pulse, which is just around the corner, he added.