Nanotech: Big Dreams, Small Steps

The theorists' much-hyped predictions won't become reality anytime soon. Meanwhile, more humble applications are making headway

Big hype comes in small packages. At least, that has been the case with nanotech -- the science of manipulating materials at the level of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. In theory, that capability will unleash all sorts of technological wonders, from tiny self-assembling computers to biological weapons-detection systems smaller than a postage stamp. For the past decade, this vision has spawned both breathless pronouncements and research funding aplenty.

It turns out, though, that nanotech may be far more complex as a technology and as a business proposition than its proponents have let on. The predictions of diagnostic submarines floating through the human blood stream (as in the 1966 science-fiction film Fantastic Voyage) and self-constructing computer circuits remain far from reality.


  The market for pure nanotech technologies remains far short of the multibillion industry some experts thought it would be by now. In short, the flashy advances promised a decade ago remain on the distant horizon. At the same time, though, nanotechnology is becoming a key component of a wide variety of products, ranging from ordinary consumer items to tools for medical and industrial uses.

On the front burner -- likely to go commercial within the next five years -- are diagnostic tools and sensors, mostly in the bioscience and materials fields, says Chad Mirkin, director of the Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University. Further into the future, he predicts, are nanoscale drug-delivery devices and electronics advances such as circuits built at the atomic level.

"The first natural area where we'll see the biggest impact is materials," says Neil Weintraut, a partner at Palo Alto (Calif.) venture-capital firm 21VC Capital. That means materials engineered to work on the smallest molecular levels, from sunscreen that better protects the skin to hair dye that lasts longer and looks better. Of course, such products don't produce the kinds of returns that venture capitalists crave. As Weintraut says, "They tend to be low-margin and capital-intensive," so their development remains mostly in-house in big corporations.


  After that, the next wave of nanotech, starting perhaps in 2004, will be diagnostic technologies to help researchers better understand and measure nanoscale interactions. This work should be concentrated in biotech, where scientists are working to grasp the building blocks of life in order to develop lucrative drugs that target their attacks more effectively. Eventually -- perhaps within the next decade -- Mirkin thinks nanotechnologies will become the predominant players in the biodiagnostics sector. Notes Mirkin: "That's an enormous market, worth between $4 billion and $15 billion annually."

Take the nano-level bar code kit developed by Nanoscale Technologies, a Mountain View (Calif.) startup, that will allow tiny tags that function like reflective bar codes to be attached to dozens of molecules in a small sample of cells. Researchers will then be able to more accurately track and measure complex biological interactions -- so-called multiplexing.

"Say you're interested in a certain type of skin cancer," says Michael Natan, the company's CEO and a pioneer in nano-bar-code research. "You have taken a small number of cells out of a sample. And there are a series of 10 or 20 molecules you need to measure and test. You can make unique nano-bar-code tags, aimed to attract those specific particles" -- and, ultimately, understand the disease better.


  Best of all, the technology lets researchers locate the tags using standard optical microscopy techniques, thus eliminating the need for special scanners. "In the life-science community, when you offer a product that saves time and money, customers will pay a lot," says Natan. "This won't be a $20 kit."

In the same time frame, researchers expect a new wave of nano-based materials to hit the market. These won't be aimed at consumers but will be used to enhance the fabrication of complex materials such as gene chips. These chips, used to sift through reams of DNA information, are clumsy to build using existing technologies. Using more precise nanoscale lithography techniques will allow the chips to have greater capacity and thus perform calculations faster.

Beyond that -- sometime between 5 and 15 years out -- lie more complex systems, such as nanotherapeutic devices that will carry stores of drugs through the blood stream and release them at just the right time in just the right places.

The furthest frontier will be nanoscale electronics, the key to smaller components that generate less heat and thus are key to making all sorts of products smaller, lighter, and more powerful. Chip companies have been doing work at the nano level for years, of course. Ultimately, though, researchers hope to create nano-level electronic systems that construct themselves from surrounding materials without much outside intervention. That could prove important since manufacturing nanoscale devices might otherwise be dependent on atom-by-atom construction and, as a result, clumsy and expensive.


  A final challenge will be figuring out how to construct interfaces between the tiny devices and humans. It's a particularly thorny task since the scale of interaction right now is mostly limited to crude feedback -- measures of conductivity, say or the presence of certain molecules -- as opposed to more useful info, such as real-time monitoring and graphical readouts of chemical levels. The development of those is so far in the future that most experts won't even guess at when to expect them.

That leaves nanotech craze as mostly that for now -- a craze. Progress is coming in small steps, with modest products. And one day in the near future, when you slather on the sun-tan lotion, you might thank nanotechnology for delivering a product with better protection. But devices that take fantastic voyages through your veins are likely to remain in the realm of sci-fi dreams for decades to come.

By Alex Salkever

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