The term ‘nanotechnology’ entered into the public vernacular quite suddenly around the turn of the century, right around the same time that, when announcing the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2001, President Bill Clinton declared that it would one day build materials stronger than steel, detect cancer at its inception, and store the vast records of the Library of Congress in a device the size of a sugar cube. The world of science fiction took matters even further. In his 2002 book Prey, Michael Creighton wrote of a cloud of self-replicating nanorobots that terrorize the good people of Nevada when a science experiment goes terribly wrong.
Back then the hype was palpable. Federal money was funneled to promising nanotech projects as not to fall behind in the race to master this new frontier of science. And industry analysts began to shoot for the moon in their projections. The National Science Foundation famously predicted that the nanotechnology industry would be worth $1 trillion by the year 2015.
Well here we are in 2015 and the nanotechnology market was worth around $26 billion in last year, and there hasn’t even been one case of a murderous swarm of nanomachines terrorizing the American heartland.
Is this a failure of vision? No. If anything it’s only a failure of timing.
The nanotechnology industry is still well on its way to accomplishing the goals set out at the founding of the NNI, goals which at the time sounded utterly quixotic, and this fact is increasingly being reflected in year-on-year growth numbers. In other words, nanotechnology is still a game-changer in global innovation, it’s just taking a little longer than first expected.
The Promise of Nanotechnology
We know the hype, but what’s the reality of nanotechnology? Simply put, the field involves the manipulation of matter on an extremely small scale – that of less than 100 nanometers – in order to create new materials and devices. Just as nanotechnology itself is a broad interdisciplinary pursuit across the sciences, so too are the technology’s real-world applications, which span several industries: biomedical, electronics, energy, and environmental just to name a few. The largest sub-sector of nanotechnology is nanomaterials, which accounted for nearly 80% of the industry in 2013. These materials can be used for anything from water purification to self-cleaning walls to anti-microbial surfaces in a hot zone, and they are already being applied in a wide variety of industrial contexts.
The promise of nanotechnology is alive and well, and the possibilities remain endless. Science & innovation occupy a unique position in their potential to change the world for the better. When grappling with transnational risks to the environment and human life, national governments and international institutions can easily be derailed by internecine conflict. In the few cases where interests are aligned, bureaucratic inefficiency can further thwart a swift and effective response. Science transcends these challenges as nothing else can, and in this nanotechnology is the cutting edge. It’s the difference between having to organize, fund, and coordinate tens of thousands of volunteers across three states to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill and dispersing the oil quickly and painlessly using nanomaterials, which would also be a far safer alternative than the chemical-based dispersants used in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nanotechnology also represents economic promise, something that a handful of far-sighted governments were quick to identify. Through 2012, the United States has invested $3.7 billion, China $1.3 billion, the EU $1.2 billion, and Japan $750 million into their respective domestic industries. All are hoping that these early investments will pay off by creating jobs and a solid R&D base in one of the last uncharted frontiers of the global innovation economy.
The Canadian Connection
Although the Canadian government is not among the world’s top spenders on nanotechnology research, the industry still represents a bright spot in the future of the Canadian economy. The public-private engine at the center of Canada’s nanotech industry, the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), was founded in 2001 with the stated goal of “increasing the competitiveness of Canadian companies; creating technology solutions to meet the needs of society; expanding training programs for researchers and entrepreneurs; and enhancing Canada’s stature in the world of nanotechnology.” This ambitious mandate that NINT set out for itself was to be accomplished over the course of two broad stages: first a ‘seeding’ phase of attracting promising personnel and coordinating basic research, and the then a ‘harvesting’ phase of putting the resulting nanotechnologies to the service of Canadian industry.
Recent developments in Canadian nanotechnology show that we have already entered that second stage where the concept of nanotechnology transitions from hopeful hypothetical to real-world economic driver.
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