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The potential of nanotechnology: the figures, the dream, and the myth

Countries endowed with great research institutions know it all too well. In order to stay in the race for innovation in the 21st century, they need to be involved and successful in four fronts, summarized by the acronym "NBIC": nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive sciences. Nanotechnology came back into the spotlight early 2010 following a particularly heated public debate in France, which emphasized the ethical and environmental concerns over an assessment of the potential of this new scientific frontier. Speaking of which, what is the real promise of nanotechnology? What can we say about the astronomical profits that certain big American consulting firms promised industrialists who were ready to embark on the adventure? In short, is nanomania meant to last?

July 2010
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Research began several years ago but researchers are still wondering what exactly nanoscience stands for: yet another step in an ongoing process of advancement—that is, a simple miniaturization—or a break in the history of science? Jean-Philippe Bourgoin, director of the Nanoscience Program at the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (Commissariat à l'énergie atomique et aux énergies alternative, or CEA) says: "Nanoscience is not a break or a revolution in the epistemological sense, as it is not based on any new laws, whether physical, chemical or biological." This conclusion does not undermine the importance of nanoscience in any way. It makes it possible to master matter in nanometric dimensions (50,000 times smaller than a strand of hair), which is precisely the scale of the key phenomena that researchers have been striving to decipher, such as the structure of cell components.

So, strictly speaking, it’s not the dimension that’s new. The nanometer is the size of the molecules. Chemists, who continuously work in this scale, have known for a long time that a chemical reaction gives rise to different reactions depending on whether the reaction is caused outdoors or in confined space—one of nanometric dimension, for example. The novelty lies in the ability to manufacture articles of nanometric size on an industrial level. Humanity and nature haven’t had to wait for this century to be able to use nanoparticles. We find them in the dye that Egyptians used on their hair, in the swords of Damascus, in the silver that provided an iridescent tint to stained glass windows in certain churches, and the "nano eyelashes" that protect water lilies from dust.

Manufactured nanoparticles are already present in a number of objects. On the dining table, they can be found, for example, in the silicon balls that prevent salt from becoming sticky, or in food packaging. In cosmetology, sun creams contain nanometric titanium dioxide, which is also used in wall finish to create self-cleaning surfaces capable of absorbing atmospheric impurities. Antibacterial nanotechnologies are sometimes used in textile products, one example being the silver nanoparticles in socks. Tires, tennis rackets, and golf balls and clubs contain nanoelements. The Saint-Gobain Group is an industry leader in “smart” windows, whose nanoparticles change color depending on the light. When it comes to luxury cars cars, scratch-resistant or self-repair paints are also nano-enhanced, just as the bumpers that regain their original shape after an accident. Army personnel, highly partial to nanotechnologies, are working on stealthy clothing, sensors capable of protecting soldiers, miniature bee-sized drones, and "intelligent dust" capable of conveying information about the battlefield.

What about the future? In 2010, we have at least three major reasons to master the structure of matter on this millionth of a millimeter scale.

The first reason is the need to produce energy in a form that is adapted to the depletion of raw materials. Here, nanotechnology plays an essential role, for example, in the perfection of photovoltaic cells. In fact, the charge separation that occurs when a photon hits the cell takes place on a nanometric scale. In a normal cell, just a few photons are transformed into energy, those whose energy is similar to that of the "forbidden band," hence the sub-standard output. On the other hand, a "thin-layered" cell made up of a stack of nanometric layers of various forbidden bands, makes it possible to harness all the photons, considerably enhancing output. According to Jean-François Hochepied, laboratory head at the Centre Energetique et Procédés of Mines-ParisTech, "Nanomaterials also offer interesting avenues for developing the hydrogen field; they can be used in specific hydrogen production (photolysis and photoelectrolysis), hydrogen storage in nano-structured materials, and electricity conversion in the case of fuel cells."

In regards to the safety of energy supplies, it’s worth mentioning the challenge of rare earths, essential components in numerous high-tech products such as mobile phones, wind turbines, hybrid engine batteries, and certain missiles. Today, 97 percent of rare earth elements (scandium, lanthanum, gadolinium, etc.) are produced in China, which is also one of their biggest consumers. In 2010, it is estimated that there will be a dearth of 10,000 tons of rare earths worldwide and that this “gap” will continue to rise. Thanks to nanotechnologies, we are striving to adapt the electronic structure of nano-objects manufactured from more abundantly present metals (iron, nickel, cobalt) in a way to give them the properties of rare earth elements. In the same light, replacement solutions for platinum, whose lack hinders the industrial development of hydrogen fuel cells, need to be found. By imitating the processes of certain living organisms (the oxidation-reduction reaction of hydrogen in enzymes, or hydrogenase), which synthesize ordinary metal-based catalysts, researchers from CEA, the French National Center for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or CNRS) and the Joseph Fourier University, Grenoble have recreated a catalyst that is almost as effective as platinum, from carbon nanotubes and nickel complexes.

Another major area where nanotechnologies can cause significant change is public health, plagued by the aging of populations, emerging diseases, and resistance to antibiotics. With the help of nanotechnologies, it will soon be possible to subject patients to intensive treatment while minimizing side effects. Chemotherapy will cease to be a massive overall aggression to the organism and will instead become an ultra precise "commando operation." The active substance will be locally and efficiently administered, directly to a cancerous cell, thereby preventing an immune system response. This is indeed a gigantic step forward for the patient.

Patrick Couvreur, professor at the Collège de France, explains how entry into the nanoworld can radically modify certain properties: "When I was studying in the Catholic University of Leuven, forty years ago, we were told that an intravenous administration of a particulate suspension would certainly kill the patient by causing embolism. Today, with nanoparticles, it is the opposite, it is recommended." We could soon create veritable “factories” on a cellular scale. They could for instance produce nanoparticles that replicate certain lipoproteins, capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier and reaching the cerebral level to deliver a drug with extreme precision. This is possible because the sensors of the nano-drug (a 100-nanometer carrier) “recognize" those of the barrier, whereas unmarked nanoparticles cannot get through.

And now, the economic question: How much will the “nano-business” weigh? Today, products including nanomaterials are quite numerous, but the number of nanoparticles manufactured on an industrial scale is less than … 20. This has in no way dulled the industry buzz, set off by a report published in 2001 by the National Science Foundation of Washington. The report upholds that products stemming from nanotechnologies will generate a planetary market of 1,000 billion dollars by 2015. By 2014, 10 million jobs could be created while products integrating nanotechnologies could finally account for 15 percent of marketed goods.

But given the lack of a commonly accepted definition of nanotechnologies, these estimates, which exceed 3,000 billion dollars according to the consulting firm Lux Research (for 2008, the firm estimates total turnover at 238 billion dollars), are highly controversial. The players do not agree on the relevant scope of the business. Everything is mixed together, and not always unintentionally, so as to create highly attractive or "photogenic" figures. Nano-enhanced products are accounted for along with nanoparticles. Moreover, ultra-miniaturized or “scaled down” technologies and real or “scaled up” nanotechnologies, which build infinitely small machines by assembling atoms, are very often put in the same basket. Even though this “real” nano market is immensely promising and revolutionary, it is impossible to know its real present and future potential since the available studies do not separate it from the rest. For Eszter Toth, from the University of Amsterdam, the sector suffers paradoxically from the excitement that it arouses: "The media plays with the uncertainty as regards the figures, a fuzzy state of affairs that allows them to portray a still highly sketchy scientific phenomenon as a unified, structured market that one must urgently invest in."

In this great nano-technological adventure, who is leading the race? According to the scientific community, it goes as follows: the United States, Asia, and Europe. The company Cientifica provides a different classification for 2009: EU (27% of investments), Russia (23%), United States (19%), Japan (12%), China (11%), Korea (4%). In Europe, much research is being conducted, as illustrated by numerous publications in leading scientific reviews, but there is significant difficulty in obtaining patents, for want of proper coordination between research centers and companies. For example, France, which has around 7,000 researchers working in this sector, can stake claim to 6.7 percent of publications and only 1.8 percent of patents, notes Alain Costes, project manager at NanoInnov. On the other hand, South Korea, which can boast barely 2 percent of publications, now owns 7 percent of patents and thus has a much greater share of industry potential.

The exploration of the new frontier will especially call for a revolution of the methods used. Jean-Philippe Bourgoin explains: "Nanotechnologies give rise to a radical reorganization of research and innovation, due to the necessary investments." In nanoelectronics, for instance, fine tuning future application software largely exceeds the financial capabilities of research organizations or industrialists taken separately, with the notable exception of the American Intel and Korean Samsung. The other leading industry players are united under the umbrella of the IBM Technology Alliance, of which the Laboratoire d’Electronique et de Technologies de l’Information (Leti), a CEA research laboratory, is a partner. This affiliation gives Leti access to the best research being done worldwide and allows it to contribute to these advances. In the nanoworld, there are no solitary breakthroughs. Research networks will make the difference. The best coalitions will be the ultimate winners.