Small is beautiful

With the doubling of R&D funding, unstoppable and momentous growth is forecast for nanotechnology as it moves into serious commercial applications.

Oxford Instruments’  recent pledge to put nanotechnology at the heart of its growth strategy provided more evidence that the nano-sector is rapidly moving from the domain of pure science into serious commercial applications.

The UK advanced instrumentation specialist has identified nanotechnology as one of three high-growth sectors — the others are environmental monitoring and molecular bioscience — which merit significant investment for the future, even if this has a short-term impact on profitability.

Like others operating in the field, Oxford Instruments has worked out that the burgeoning variety of nanoapplications will require an array of associated technologies in areas such as monitoring, measurement and analysis.

Oxford Instruments’ expectations of explosive growth in the sector received a big endorsement just a few weeks ago, when the European Commission recommended that a significant chunk of the EU’s vast research funds should be devoted to nanotechnology between now and 2009.

The Commission made its call in its Nanosciences and Nanotechnology Action Plan for Europe, an attempt to formulate a Europe-wide approach to a sector it expects to grow by ‘hundreds of billions of euros’ over the coming decades.

Specifically, under the proposals the nano-sector would enjoy a doubling of R&D resources under the Framework 7 technology programme compared with the existing Framework 6 arrangements.

In a declaration of intent accompanying the Action Plan, the EU made all the usual noises about the need to foster stronger links between universities, specialist research facilities and industrial partners ‘to ensure that R&D is translated into affordable and safe wealth-generating products and processes’.

Behind the platitudes, however, it is clear that Europe’s policy makers believe the stakes are high, with the evolution of a strong nanotechnology infrastructure vital to the competitiveness of the entire European technology sector.

Nano-electronics, for example, was singled out as an area of especially high priority because of the potential of nanotechnology to stimulate ‘industrially relevant research in a technologically mature field and provide the foundation for the next generation of electronics.’

Last month, under Framework 6, the EU committed E24m (£16.5m) to a project called NanoCMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor), which aims to explore ‘the limits’ of microchips below the 45nm scale.

The project’s leader, Guillermo Bomchil, said: ‘European technology companies are often behind their Japanese and American counterparts. Europe was not able to participate meaningfully in the microelectronics boom of the 1970s and 1980s and European governments are determined not to miss the boat of the nano-revolution.’

While Europe’s backing of sectors such as nano-electronics is hardly surprising, more unexpected is the Action Plan’s heavy emphasis on the need to ‘integrate the societal dimension’ — Euro-jargon for securing public support for advances in nanotechnology.

Like many of the engineers and scientists working in the fledgling industry, the Commission has heard the murmurs of disquiet already raised over the potentially enormous impact on society of the new science.

‘While nanoscience and nanotechnology are bringing about important advances and benefits for our society that improve our quality of life, some risk is inherent — as for every technology — and this should be openly acknowledged and investigated,’ said the Commission’s report.

The application of nanotechnology to medicine is of particular concern, and the Action Plan recommends setting up ethics committees and other watchdogs to monitor the situation.

Despite these reservations, the Commission clearly regards the nanotechnology bandwagon as both unstoppable and momentous. ‘Nanotechnology is a key area where Europe is in the lead, and we must ensure that we stay there,’ it said.