NEW YORK -- Buoyed by a recent pledge of $2.4 billion in funding from the U.S. government, nanotechnology researchers, investors, and business executives gathered here this week to discuss new technologies and the state of their emerging industry.
Gathered at the second annual NanoBusiness conference, organized by the Manhattan-based NanoBusiness Alliance, a hot topic among those present was a just-passed House of Representatives bill authorizing $2.4 billion in spending over the next three years on nanotechnology research.
The bill calls for the creation of an interagency committee on nanotechnology research, and authorizes funds for appropriation by agencies including the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The two-year-old NanoBusiness Alliance -- whose membership includes corporations, universities, government agencies, service firms and non-profit organizations -- had been lobbying for passage of the legislation.
The House bill signals that federal policymakers are ready at last to take nanotechnology seriously, former House Science Committee Chair Bob Walker said during a presentation.
"If there was ever a lagging indicator in the United States, it's the United States Congress," quipped Walker, who retired in 1996 and now co-leads the lobbying firm.
But having funds authorized is still a long way from having them appropriated, and significant challenges remain for researchers and developers hoping to tap the federal government's pool of grants and contracts, he cautioned. Dealing with the government is a lengthy and often expensive process, Walker said.
Nanotechnology science involves manipulating matter at the atomic level. The cross-disciplinary subject holds promise for advances in a number of fields including medicine, electronics, defense, and manufacturing in a range of industries. While early-stage nanotechnology research began decades ago, it's only in the last few years that the niche has begun attracting widespread interest from the business and investment communities.
Executives from two large companies with nanotechnology initiatives under way spoke during keynote addresses Monday about areas in which they hope to soon begin seeing their investments pay off.
General Electric (GE), which has a portfolio of businesses that spans jet engines and running a TV network, sees in nanotechnology the chance to fundamentally alter what's possible in a number of its manufacturing operations, said Scott Donnelly, the company's senior vice president of research and development.
Materials science is a discipline of small steps, justified by the enormous impact that slight enhancements can have when applied to large-scale operations, Donnelly said.
"An entire decade is spent to take firing temperature up 20 degrees," he said. "When we look at nanotechnology, and the incredible materials performance of the new composites ... we see the opportunity in so many areas to do a step function in the performance of our products in the field."
Among the nanotechnology initiatives GE is currently working on are projects aimed at lighter and cheaper aircraft parts, more efficient and effective medical imaging, and materials with better heat management properties, for use in devices such as mobile phones, Donnelly said.