A Nanotech Pioneer's Sober Assessment

Goundbreaking researcher Stan Williams of HP says it's clear that the 'knee' in the curve is still another five or more years away

There's nothing shy and reclusive about Hewlett-Packard researcher Stan Williams. A senior HP (HPQ ) fellow and director of Quantum Science Research at HP Labs, Williams was a pioneer in early nanotechnology research. He's also a bit of a maverick. While he's happy to talk about the nanotechnology research he's doing -- including his own potential breakthrough in nano-based circuits announced in early February -- he also cautions people not to get too carried away with nanotech's possibilities (see BW Online, 2/1/05, "HP Prints a New Chapter in Circuitry").

After all, Williams says in an e-mail interview with BusinessWeek Online Technology Editor Jim Kerstetter, it took decades for groundbreaking research in semiconductors to have a practical benefit to industry. So why should nanotechnology be all that different? Following are edited excerpts of that interview:

Q: We seem to be in a nanotechnology backlash before there's much of a market for what comes out of nanotech research. Why do you think this is happening? I ask because you've always sounded like a pragmatist about nanotech's potential.


I was predicting there would be a backlash on nano several years ago, and I have done my best over the years to dampen the hype to lessen the impact of the backlash. The primary result is that I'm no longer invited to the "nanobusiness" conferences to speak, because people were tired of hearing me say it would be a long haul before a lot of nano-products would be available.

People are impatient -- they want to see results immediately. In the case of nanotech, it has always been obvious that there would be huge benefits, but on the other hand it would take a huge amount of work and a long time to make them viable. Many of the hypsters were trying to make a quick buck one way or another, and they were bound to disappoint and leave those of us toiling in the trenches to explain why their extravagant visions never appeared.

However, there have been tremendous advances in the past couple of years, and several nano-enabled products are already on the market.  Progress is exponential, but the "knee" in the curve is still another five or more years away.  As I expected, this is playing out much like semiconductors did. The real payback from all of the pioneering semiconductor research work in the late '50s and early '60s didn't really kick in until the '70s, '80s, and even '90s, when semiconductors and all they enabled were the major contributors to U.S. economic growth.

Q: What's the best short-term opportunity for nanotechnology? Sure sounds like it will be in the semiconductor industry.


Short term, the biggest opportunities are in materials of all sorts.  Nano-composites are being introduced that have combinations of properties that no naturally occurring material has ever had, like hardness and toughness.  This is leading to all sorts of improved products, like car bumpers and drill bits, and as the cost of these materials falls, they'll find broader applications (see BW Online "Slide Show: The Nano Universe Expands").

The next industry in which nano will have a big impact is chemicals, with more exquisitely designed catalysts being able to produce higher value-added products more easily, with less feedstock and energy. There's great enthusiasm in the semiconductor industry, but what I consider true nanotechnology -- utilizing new properties enabled by the nanoscale -- won't make a significant impact until the end of this decade or the beginning of the next.

Q: What does nanotechnology mean to your company, HP?


Nanotechnology for us is the means by which we will continue to improve our existing products and introduce entirely new products in the coming decades.

Q: Can you explain what you're doing in layman's terms?


We're working to reinvent the integrated circuit, using different materials and devices that are more suited to operating at the nanometer scale than in silicon.

Q: When will it show up as a product, and what will that be?


I believe we'll see some simple memory products in the next five years and possibly some hybrid molecular-CMOS (complimentary metal oxide semiconductor) devices in the seven-year time frame.

Q: Long-term, what industries can nanotech research affect?


Every industry that involves manufactured items will be impacted by nanotechnology research -- everything can be made in some way better -- stronger, lighter, cheaper, easier to recycle -- if it's engineered and manufactured at the nanometer scale.

Q: What will nanotech never accomplish, though some people believe it will?


Nanotechnology will never make us all infinitely wealthy, keep us alive forever, nor kill us all.

Q: Do you share concerns about health issue related to nanotech?


There are always concerns about the health issues around any new material or chemical. However, in the case of nano, we as a research community and society have been more cautious than with any previous technology with which I am familiar. We've been asking the right questions and performing research in advance to understand what could happen to prevent unpleasant surprises, rather than wait to perform retrospective studies to figure out what went wrong.

There have been some claims that nanoparticles have never existed in nature before, and, therefore, they'll necessarily be toxic. However, many organisms have been fabricating nanoparticles throughout the existence of life on earth, so we know that many nanoparticles are nontoxic and actually beneficial to the organisms that make them.

Q: Who's doing the best nanotechnology research right now?


It's still the case that the most innovative work in nanotechnology is being done in the U.S. However, the total quantity of work being done in the U.S. is only a small fraction, about one-fourth, of the work being done worldwide, and the rest of the world is catching up quickly on quality issues.

This will not be an area that the U.S. dominates simply because we're the only ones with the facilities to do the work, which was true in the early days of semiconductors. We're in the midst of a worldwide competition for the economic rewards that will come to those who get their products to market first, and we seem to be getting complacent at just the wrong time.

Q: Should the federal government be funding nanotech projects?


Right now, the primary engine for driving creativity and innovation in nanotechnology in the U.S. is the federal government. It's the only entity in the U.S. that can invest with returns coming decades into the future. Again, this follows the semiconductor experience -- the U.S. government was investing 2% of gross domestic product in research in the early 1960s, and just the economic returns from the semiconductor industry that was created from government funding have repaid those investments many times over.

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