Has Nanotechnology delivered?

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That seems to be a weighty question, especially for an SPM blog.  It is on my mind as I returned from the 2017 Techconnect meeting which was held at the Gaylord convention center in Washington DC from May 15-May 17.  This meeting has been going on for 20 years, with the expressed goal of accelerating innovations out of the lab and into industry.  Bringing over 3,000 participants from a global audience of over 70 countries, this meeting combines a technical nanotech conference with the national innovation summit and showcase.  The meeting features 6 tracks with an industry focus, where each track has a technical and business (innovation program):  materials and chemicals, cleantech and energy, biotech and pharma, electronics and microtech, defense and government, and IT and software.  The past couple of years has seen the addition of the national SBIR (small business innovation research) conference, where the SBIR is a US government funded program that provides grants to small companies to “explore their technological potential.”

Image:  Attendees exploring the exhibit at the 2017 TechConnect meeting

In TechConnect’s innovation program, small companies and startups pitch their ideas in brief 7-minute segments to an appropriately themed audience anchored by large companies looking for ventures in that area in sessions termed “innovation highlights”.    For example, this year Arkema and Praxair anchored the Materials Innovation Spotlights hearing about a variety of pitches in areas of smart coatings, flexible surface heating materials, and inorganic and polymeric nanofibers.

As a community focused on developing characterization tools, microscopy is key to the field of nanotechnology.   In fact, Materials Characterization and Imaging has been a long-standing symposium at this event in the “Materials and Chemicals” track.  Organized by yours truly with Greg Haugstad (University of Minnesota) and Pierre Panine (Xenocs SA), this year’s symposium featured dedicated sessions on in situ imaging, nanoparticle analysis, and AFM characterization.

But back to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog.  It was actually raised during the conference’s keynote address delivered by Professor Rob Carpick, a fellow SPMer from University of Pennsylvania.  He cited a report from BCC Research on “The Maturing Nanotechnology Market:  Products and Applications”.  This report broke down the nanotechnology market into 3 broad areas:  nanomaterials, nanotools [this community], and nanodevices showing a market share between the 3 area below from 2015 -2021. 

Marketshare plot.  Source:  BCC Research

This report broke down the nanotechnology market into 3 broad areas: nanomaterials (blue), nanotools (pink) [this community], and nanodevices (gray) showing a market share between the 3 areas below from 2015 -2021.

I found it interesting that nanomaterials represent the lion’s share of the market nowadays [according to this study], while the area of nanotools – the area closest and dearest to my heart – is a distant second.  The prognosis does not change when looking forward a few years either.  I suppose on the one hand it makes sense because nanomaterials are the source of the field – we need the materials in order to be able to study them [with nanotools] and then fashion them into useful products [nanodevices].  At least our work is in the second place market?  But what does it mean that the ultimate deliverable for this field, the devices that capitalize on nanotechnology to deliver some application or capability remains such a small market according to these estimates?

The analysis addresses the concern of whether nanotechnology has really delivered over the past 20 or so years or does it remain hype?  Professor Carpick referred to an interesting editorial by Paul Weiss and Paul Mulvaney, editors of ACS Nano on exactly this topic.   They conclude – and Professor Carpick agreed – that nanotechnology has not yet become the disruptive technology that was perhaps the expectation when this field launched.   And the science and engineering that are required to achieve real-world, widely-adopted, useful applications that take advantage of nanoscale materials and technology is still challenging.   From dealing with the uniquely high surface to bulk ratio of the materials, to the fragility and high cost of materials, and complexity of processing in non-cleanroom environments, this field retains some very high experimental hurdles that have not been fully solved.

What does this bode specifically for those of us engaged in nanoscale characterization tools such as scanning probe microscopy or electron microscopy?.  Well, as Professor Carpick concluded based on his own research in the field of nano-tribology, nanotechnology is 3 steps forward and two steps back.  There is clearly a lot of energy and passion around innovating and building capabilities and devices that take advantage of this small length scale in some way, as was evident at the TechConnect Meeting.  But the road to successful commercialization of nanotech-based technologies still has a long way to go.  Which means that until this field really does take off, we continue plodding in the lab providing the ever-essential surface of characterizing, mapping, and imaging all these exciting materials that will hopefully find their way to many useful application and device, and perhaps ultimately help nanotechnology fulfill its role as a disruptive technology.

Dalia Yablon, Ph.D.

SurfaceChar LLC


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