The race for the high ground in nanotechnology development and applications is heating as U.S. government efforts gain momentum, funding and direction. Legislation promoting nanotechnology development in electronics, energy and medicine has been introduced in both the House and Senate. At the same time, government science and technology agencies are working to funnel federal funds to the right programs, as industry and universities gear up to move promising technologies like carbon nanotubes from the laboratory to market.
Congress approved $849 million for nanotechnology research and development in fiscal 2003. "We're rapidly heading toward a $1 billion program," said Richard Russell of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Now's the time to shape the program."
A recent National Research Council review of a proposed U.S. nanotechnology research initiative concluded that the effort "needs a clear, compelling and overarching strategy." The urgency is driven in part by growing international competition. Estimates of Japan's investment in nanotechnology R&D run as high as $500 million a year.
Russell told a presidential council on science and technology that research efforts are focusing on creating devices at sizes between 1 and 100 nanometers and on how materials will interact. The advisory council convened a meeting in early March to consider a proposed work plan for nanotechnology R&D.
The lion's share of federal funding has so far been earmarked for fundamental research into areas like materials and a set of nanotechnology "grand challenges." The list includes nanoscale manufacturing, instrumentation and metrology, development of materials like carbon nanotubes and nanoscale electronics, photonics and magnetics. Nanotechnology has a "huge potential impact on electronics," Russell said.
Other categories include energy conservation and storage as well as micro aircraft and robotics, two areas in which agencies like the Defense Department are interested.
Carbon nanotubes have so far drawn the most interest and research dollars. The so-called light pipes are being considered for applications ranging from vertical interconnects and electron-beam welding of simple junctions to scratch-resistant films. "We are just now learning how to assemble [carbon nanotubes] into useful nanostructural materials and devices," said Richard Siegel of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Troy, N.Y.).
The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is preparing a nanotechnology game plan that calls for delivering a set of primary objectives for a U.S. research program by the end of the summer. The strategy would include recommendations on "grand challenges" and strategic goals that could be used in developing a fiscal 2005 budget request. The recommendations would not cover spending levels, only how federal funds should be spent.
The group said it would continue to monitor the initiative through the summer of 2004. It is working with a National Nanotechnology Coordination Office to formulate the plan.
"We will be building the stuff that does the stuff at the nanometer scale," Nobel laureate Richard Smalley told the advisory panel. Smalley, a pioneer in development of carbon nanotube technology at Rice University, added that the technology holds the answers "to most of our most pressing material needs."
A possible bottleneck in the development of nano-technology is the willingness of government agencies to work together. Some observers wonder if agencies like the Defense Department will be willing to share the fruits of research paid for out of strapped agency budgets.
Indeed, presidential science adviser John Marburger said he wanted the federal plan to consider how agencies can cooperate and share their research facilities to cut overhead, leaving more funding for basic research.
Floyd Kvamme, the venture capitalist who along with Marburger co-chairs the presidential advisory panel, said groups like the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) have weighed in on the future of the nanotechnology initiative. One concern is that CMOS technology is reaching its physical limits as lithography line widths narrow. "SIA wants to participate," Kvamme said.
Marburger and Kvamme both said congressional interest in the initiative remains high. Senate legislation to boost the fledgling industry has been placed on a legislative "fast track." A bill is to hit the House floor for a vote by as early as May.
Alan Marty of JP Morgan Partners told the House Science Committee that Japan and the European Union each invested $1 billion in nanotechnology commercialization over the last year.
The proposed House legislation would authorize spending $2.1 billion over three years for nanotechnology R&D.