THINK about the difference between cement and sea-shells, and nanotechnology begins to make sense. They are made of roughly the same chemical elements, but the atoms are arranged differently. In short, they have different nanostructures, which is why cement crumbles when cut thin, but delicate shells endure. Nanotech's appeal is that it offers the potential to control nanostructures.
When George Bush signed the National Nanotechnology Initiative into law last month, he boosted America's investment in a nascent technology that has been hyped for years. There is talk of a market value of $2 trillion by 2015, from perhaps as little as $1 billion today.
Is nanotech an industry, a process, or something else? David Bishop of the New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium defines it broadly as “devices, structures or systems with characteristics, features or parts on a nanoscale”—that is, less than one billionth of a metre.
In America, corporate giants such as General Electric, Motorola, DuPont and Lucent are now pursuing nanotech. Boeing is working on applications to cut the weight of rockets, aircraft and satellites. Kodak has focused on uses in flat-screen displays, inkjet paper and medical imaging. 3M sees potential applications in optical films, self-cleaning glass and dentistry.
Thus far, large firms are mostly drawing on outside research, much as big drug firms buy in biotech, says Sean Murdock of AtomWorks, a nanotech research and development organisation. That helps to explain the boom in nanotech start-ups. McKinsey, a consultancy, counted 837 nanotech start-ups in 2003—over half in America—up from 462 in 2001.
Nanotech still faces big challenges in the journey from lab to widespread commercial use. Manufacturing processes must become cheaper. Social and environmental concerns may have to be addressed. Private investors have so far been cautious, because likely winners are hard to identify. Much of the funding so far is by government—rising, according to McKinsey, from $825m worldwide in 2000 to $3 billion in 2003.
Already on the market are sunscreens that do not leave a white zinc residue and sports shirts that are unusually waterproof and stain-resistant. Next in line are nanoproducts in chemicals, coatings, sensors and cosmetics. Beyond that, new products are expected to follow in lighting, medical diagnosis, drug delivery and computing. This week, Intel, the world's biggest chip-maker, announced a collaboration with Nanosys, a start-up based in Palo Alto.
In America, the north-east, northern California and Chicago are emerging as nanotech hubs. “You need to be close to the clusters of innovation to get people who've interacted with leaders in the field,” says Cedric Loiret-Bernal of NanoInk, a Chicago-based start-up.
A key challenge for firms and investors is where to focus. “Fortunes are going to be made and lost,” says Mr Bishop. “That's the beauty of capitalism. It will reward those who guessed right and punch those who didn't.” The products may be tiny, but the stakes are enormous.