Nanotech to Go Mainstream by 2020
Nanotech to Go Mainstream by 2020
A few simple products are out now, but the prospect of creating more powerful computers, medical treatments, and virtually any type of item from scratch now has the entire world excited, with billions being poured into research that produces breakthroughs daily. The President of NanoBusiness Alliance said "Nanotech is breaking out all over the planet." 1,200 nanotech ventures have been started around the globe, and 3000 patents have been filed.
Beyond simply being smaller, objects behave differently at the nano level, introducing bold new possibilities. For instance, electricity flows far more easily in nano structures. Rice University is developing a superconducting cable made of carbon nanotubes (the basic material receiving most attention today) that could carry power over great distances with almost no energy loss.
Nanotubes have 100 times the tensile strength of steel at 1/6th the weight, and this 600-fold advantage has made the old vision of a "space elevator" feasible. Scientists at Los Alamos Laboratories are designing a satellite that will orbit 62,000 miles above a fixed spot on the Equator, connected to Earth with a thin cable of nanotubes 1 meter wide. The first nation to develop the space elevator will be able to carry objects into orbit at a small fraction of the cost of using rockets, assuring dominance of space.
The extremely small size of nanotubes also offers huge potential for designing far more powerful computers. Nantero Corporation is producing nanotube memory chips that store terabits of data, one million times the current density. Nanotech is expected to make up 40% of data storage devices by 2011. The technology is so powerful that we can envision cell phones downloading entire movies.
Nanotech has also created great excitement in medicine because microscopic objects can be designed to search out diseased cells in the human body and destroy them. The U.S. National Cancer Institute thinks "this could radically change we way we diagnose, treat, and prevent cancer," while the U.S. National Science Foundation estimates that half of all medical treatments and drugs could be affected by nanotech.
My company, TechCast, pools the knowledge of 100 experts working online around the world to forecast breakthroughs in all fields of science. We estimate that nanotechnology is likely to reach mainstream use about 2020 +/- five years. (See http://TechCast.org) Mainstream is defined as reaching the 30 percent adoption level, the inflection where 30 percent of all products are enhanced by nanotechnology. The economic potential market seems to be vast, in the trillion dollar range.
We could be disappointed, of course, because this is a complex, challenging field with great obstacles to overcome, and nanotech presents possible dangers. Research has shown that carbon nanotubes dissolve in water and can damage organisms, such as bacteria.
Advances are occurring daily, however, and with scientists and engineers hard at work around the globe, it is reasonable to foresee huge gains in learning how to control mater at the nano level in a decade or so. After all, who would have imagined that computer chips would now contain one billion transistors.
------------------------------------- William E. Halal is professor of science, technology, and innovation at George Washington University, Washington, DC. He is co-director of the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation, President of TechCast LLC, and author of several books, such as The Infinite Resource (Jossey Bass, 1998).
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