Tuesday, July 15, 2003

This ain't no party, this ain't no nano

Today's press release from The Freedonia Group, "U.S. Nanomaterials Demand to Reach $35 Billion in 2020" comes from the "You're Soaking In It" school of nanotechnology, and I've found that it only angers people.

Talk about how everyday items like sunscreen and scratch-free surfaces are examples of nanotech products on the market, and the party conversation or chat with your barber always turns from amazement to uncomfortable silence and boredom. Try to keep your audience interested by talking about how these mundane nanoscale products are small stepping stones to the "Star Trek" stuff that their great-grandkids may or may not enjoy, and you're back to discussing the day's temperature fluctuations.

Maybe, if you're a naturally charming person, you'll get them back with news like this breakthrough reported in the July 11Glasgow Herald, "Paint changes color in tiny world of molecular robot."

But, yes, for the most part, nanotech products on the market today sound a lot like glorified chemistry recast as nanotech. In fact, that's what a Wired reporter asked me about a couple of months ago. His story, apparently written before he even began his research, started with the premise that chemical companies are simply renaming their "stuff" nanotechnology, so they can cash in on government grants. Yesterday's story in The Scientist, "Where the funds are," would seem to confirm this.

My answer is, "Of course. That's the idea." Calling nanotechnology an "industry" is very misleading. Much of nanotechnology today IS chemistry, so the chemists are the ones who are going to push it forward right now. We're not even in the "Model-T" phase of nanotech development yet. We're still grunting by firelight, chiseling wheels out of rocks. If chemists decide to crawl, beakers in hand, to the government trough in order to fund research into how materials behave on the nanoscale, the discoveries that result will be added to the long link between nanotube tennis rackets and the "Star Trek" replicator.

Want to really bore your friends? Here are a few more nano products that are around today.

Nanophase Technologies Corp. provides nanomaterials to BASF, which uses them in sunscreen.

L'Oreal's Plenitude line of cosmetics contains nanocapsules, which help active ingredients get to the skin's deeper layers.

Wilson Double Core tennis balls use a nanoclay developed by InMat LLC.

Nanogate supplies nanomaterials for Cerax Nanowax -- a ski wax

Hansa Metallwerke, a kitchen and bathroom fixtures company based in Stuttgart, Germany, uses a nanomaterial for scratchproof coatings.

And, of course, I'm protected from coffee spills as we speak by nanomaterials from Nano-Tex covering my Eddie Bauer pants. If I'm soaking in it, it's just beading up and falling to the floor.


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