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Nanotechnology in the High-Gloss World of Formula 1

I have discussed previously my misreading of how carbon nanotubes in professional cycling would be limited by the UCI weight restrictions on bicycles. They may not have made the carbon fiber frames that make up the high-end race bikes seen in the Tour de France any lighter, but at the same weight they likely made them stronger. As a result, many of the bikes used in professional cycling have some carbon nanotubes in the materials that make up the frame.


The rules and regulations governing professional motor sport, especially Formula 1, make the weight restrictions of the UCI look like child’s play. Nonetheless the smallest technological advantage in a Formula 1 car can make the difference between World Championships and also-rans. So, there is always market pull in racing for the latest technology. 

While I don’t usually write about conferences until after the event so as not to provide unintended promotion, I was struck by this press release over at Nanowerk. Apparently, The Centre of Excellence in Metrology for Micro and Nanotechnologies, is planning a conference this month at Cranfield University on the topic of how nanotechnologies (i.e. from nanomaterials in composites to microscopy) are further enabling innovation in motor sport.

While it seems there is reason for nanotechnologies to be investigated for use in motor sport, it’s not clear from the program whether this is the current state of affairs, or just could be.

In fact, the agenda seems to offer an odd hodgepodge of topics that seem tangentially related to nanotechnology in motor sport, but don’t offer up something like “McLaren’s use of carbon nanotubes in chasis manufacturing”. Instead we get “Low Carbon Vehicle Initiative and Funding Opportunities”. That doesn’t sound very sporting to me.

I know a thing or two about conferences having produced a few of them myself and one thing you ask yourself when you’re putting together the agenda is: “Who is the audience?” For this one, I couldn’t tell you. But for my part my interest would be to see some cool looking Formula 1 cars or even just parts. The nanotechnology bit, not so much.

How Will Regulations on Nanomaterials Be Enacted?

Certainly within the last five years, or perhaps even longer, whenever anyone raised the future prospects of nanomaterials a discussion of the impact regulations might have had to be included.

The impassioned, albeit often misguided, views of some NGOs on the toxicity of nanoparticles, has led many to consider how regulations might be adopted to mitigate any risk that they might pose.

Over at Nanotech-Now an editorial from John DiLoreto, CEO/Founder of NanoReg, we have at least the way in which these regulations may come into law in the US: not through the Federal government but from the States.

While the Senate continues to work on The Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 (PDF), which will reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that has remained unchanged since 1976 when it went into law, states may take the responsibility upon themselves of regulating nanoparticles, according to DiLoreto.

There is some history of this scenario in the US as DiLoreto explains. He provides the case of phosphates in laundry detergent. When the Federal government didn’t act, states stepped in and enacted their own laws. With enough states doing the same, it no longer made economic sense for producers to make two different formulas for laundry detergent, one with phosphates and the other without, so they just eliminated the phosphate-containing detergent.

DiLoreto identifies “at least seven states specifically calling out nanomaterials for treatment as "chemicals of concern."” States that he goes on to mention that are currently engaged in some kind of examination of nanomaterials include, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts, Washington, South Carolina, Wisconsin and California.

It is in California where the regulations look to be the most advanced. The most controversial bits of California’s regulatory project have been the definition of nanomaterials offered by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which considers “materials under 1,000 nm to be nanoscale rather than the more commonly accepted 100 nm.” When this definition is coupled with the view of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) that “all nanomaterials will be considered hazardous” the broad range of regulations that could come forth is staggering.

The prospect of states determining the regulations of nanomaterials on a state-by-state basis, which in turn will decide the fate of nanomaterials’ commercial prospects, seems as though it should be a somewhat scarier proposition for producers than one, over arching set of regulations from the Federal government.

Scaling Up Memristor Development--Changes to Memory Industry Expected

Over at Frogheart, the fascination with the memristor exceeds even my own.

Most recently, the Frogheart blog picked up on a story over at in which it was reported that HP will be partnering in joint developmental research with Korean-based memory chip maker Hynix Semiconductor Inc. to make memristor chips. In the video below, Stanley Williams expects that this joint development will have a pretty significant impact on the memory industry.

 “This will change the memory industry because it’s going to allow us to continue scaling,” says Williams. “In other words to go to higher and higher densities as with flash but actually with a product that has both the capability and capacity we believe to replace both hard disk and DRAM memory in computers.” 

As Williams notes in this video, HP believes Hynix is the partner that will help move this technology from the lab to the fab on a fast track for product development.

Nano-Enabled Autonomous Robot Offered for Cleaning Oil Spills

When the Gulf oil spill hit the news last Spring, I wondered how long it would take for people to turn to nanotechnology for a solution, and whether it could offer one at all.

It seems attempts to use a nanoparticle-based dispersant on the problem caused more controversy than offered a solution.

I was left with the idea that I shared in my comments to the post: “If you want technology to do something in particular, you had better start spending some time and money in getting it to work. If not, you will be left in the situation we are in now where nanotechnology's impact could be somewhere between minimal to none at all.”

While I am not aware of the broader technological work that is now underway to combat oil spills, I have seen an interesting technology out of MIT that uses an autonomous robot equipped with a “thin nanowire mesh to absorb oil.”

According to Francesco Stellacci, a Visiting Professor at MIT, the nano-enabled fabric can absorb up to twenty times its own weight in oil while repelling water. The material also can be heated up to eliminate the oil from it and then reused.

The system would work by employing a swarm of these oil-capturing robots (thus the name, “Seaswarm”) for cleaning up oil spills. The MIT researchers estimate that 5,000 of these robots working autonomously around the clock for a month could clean up an oil spill the size of the one in the Gulf.

So, the technology is there in prototype. The question now becomes whether an oil company will spend the money to develop it into a real solution. We’ll see. The video below offers more detail on the technology.


Nanotechnology's Shift from R&D to Commercialization Urged

Through the concurrence of a number of events, I am now wondering if we are not seeing a minor shift developing in the way that nanotechnology development is being approached that may in fact lead to a more fundamental one.

The shift that I see developing is one that moves away from simply developing new nanomaterials but to seeing how these nanomaterials may in fact enable new products. Of course, that has always been the idea supposedly, but it has not been clear through funding and research whether this has been encouraged and pursued.

I commented recently on the work of Professor Geoffrey Ozin at the University of Toronto, who has offered a set of recommendations for continued research into nanomaterials that may allow us to actually reap some benefit from them rather than simply stockpiling in an effort to retain research funding.

And now I have read over at Andrew Maynard’s 20/20 Science blog his eloquent preamble in his response to National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Strategic Plan 2010; Request for Information (FR Doc. 2010–16273) Submitted August 15 2010.

While Maynard’s points are well made, I wonder whether eloquence may be lost on bureaucrats, even of the most enlightened variety. Maynard describes a “changing of context” from the time the NNI was formed 10 years ago when it was supporting research and development to now where nanotechnology is heading towards being “…a significant driver of economic growth and social progress.”

This change leads Maynard to ask whether the institution that has asked the questions is in fact a hindrance or assistance in the further development of nanotechnology.

“With this changing context, it is necessary to consider whether the concepts and expectations embedded within the NNI are still valid, or whether they have become an impediment to progress,” asks Maynard “This is a tough question to ask of such a well-established and influential initiative. But it is one that needs to be addressed if the efforts of the past ten years are to bear fruit.”

I am not sure that urging the leaders of the NNI to undergo some kind of existential questioning of their institution will lead to much more than a shrug and dismissal when it appears that not asking those questions, or at least not understanding the answers, is part of their modus operandi.

Let's hope they're ready to listen.


Reducing Nanotechnology to "Vaporware"

I have to confess to getting more than a small chuckle from a recent blog entry from Scott Locklin, who reduces the entire enterprise of nanotechnology to 25 years of charlatanry.

The criticism takes two forms. In one, the idea of labeling the surface and colloidal science “nanotechnology” is a bit bogus. Secondly, the Drexlerian vision of nanotechnology he characterizes as little more than science fiction.

On the former characterization, he will probably get little more than a shrug from the chemists and advanced material scientists he seems to be assailing. But I imagine the latter critique of Drexler and molecular manufacturing (MNT) will garner him relentless harangues, if my experience with simply discussing the subject, never mind criticizing it, is any indication.

[Editor's note: This paragraph had to be changed to reflect my mix up between Laclan Cranswick and Scott Locklin.] Locklin has even provided a link to Laclan's Cranswick's website, the name of which is not repeatable on this blog (according to the website Cranswick passed away in January of this year) Cranswick's site offered critical views of nanotechnology at least since 2005 (when I first became aware of his work) . The site even made a few references to some items published by the firm I work for that expressed a fair amount of skepticism towards “nanotechnology”.

Now my viewpoint on these objections of Locklin is a bit more tempered than his, albeit the name of this blog is “Nanoclast”. As far as finding it a bit wrong to call advanced material science or chemistry by the term “nanotechnology”, this argument has been offered innumerable times before. And as appealing as it may be to think that this change in nomenclature is the result of some marketing conspiracy, the term does help to focus what is at work here.

Nanotechnology is not just chemistry and advanced material science, it is a zoo of disciplines that have to be brought together at times to develop technologies that are enabled by the bizarre behavior of the world at the nanoscale. This can involve biologists to chemists from physicists to electrical engineers. It is a word that becomes so broad at times that it nearly begins to lose all meaning. But we do need something to delineate this research from merely chemistry because it is not just chemistry. And the term "nanotechnology" is as good as any other.

Now as for his attack on Drexler’s work, one would do better to look at Drexler’s more recent work and views on atomically precise manufacturing rather than to continue to focus on his now quarter-century-old PhD thesis.

I like Locklin’s point of view, and it’s one that I have shared more or less on occasion, albeit not to his degree, but I think the criticism of nanotechnology in its entirety needs to become somewhat more sophisticated if it is to move beyond just broad humor, funny though it may be.

From Doomsayer to Nanotech Investor: The Interesting Path of Bill Joy

It has been argued by a few that the eleventh-hour reversal in the US government’s approach to nanotechnology back in 2000 from a support of molecular manufacturing (MNT) as theorized by Eric Drexler to more of a focus on surface and colloidal science was in part informed by Bill Joy’s article in Wired magazine entitled "Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”

Joy’s article laid out a rather grim assessment of our future that saw our most advanced technologies, including nanotechnology (which in this case seems to be the MNT variety), leading to our own destruction. In a country that idolizes either pretty young pop artists or captains of industry, the force of his argument became inescapable for the government leaders holding the purse strings. Over at Accelerating Future, Michael Anissimov has captured this turnaround somewhat with the friendly hearings Gore held with Eric Drexler.

To the extent that Joy’s article derailed MNT research and development no one can say for sure, but there is a feeling out there that it was not insignificant. So, I was a bit surprised when I saw over at Frogheart that Christine Peterson was promoting a TED video of Bill Joy on the Foresight Institute’s Nanodot blog.

But the irony doesn’t end there. In the video below, which was filmed back in 2006 and posted in 2008, Joy explains how he had become a venture capitalist, specializing in…nanotechnology. Of course, it was more of the advanced materials variety than the MNT kind, but clearly Mr. Joy knows which side his bread is buttered on and it isn’t the one that entertains doomsday scenarios brought on by technological advancement.


How To Befuddle a Journalist and His Readers on the Subject of Nanotechnology

I have long taken mainstream journalists to task for their often ham-handed coverage of nanotechnology. Sometimes they can be minor mistakes or in other examples they can be the most flimsy business analysis one could conjure up.

But I think I have discovered a whole new category for this one. I think I will call it the M.C. Escher form of technology reporting. Just when you figure out which way is up it becomes down.

Let me give you an example. The article attempts to differentiate between “evolutionary” nanotechnology and “revolutionary” nanotechnology. Fair enough, I am up for that.

It is explained that the evolutionary variety is really just engineers trying to make chips with smaller and smaller dimensions using the same old photolithography processes that have been in use for years—a top-down approach, if you will.

Now for the revolutionary approach. I expected to hear about molecular manufacturing, and I did. “The barriers to the construction of nanoscale components could disappear when molecular methodologies become more mature,” the reporter explains. “More mature?” Okay, let’s not quibble.

But then it gets all a bit weird. It turns out the “revolutionary” nanotechnology is still at a research stage (begging the question of how something that doesn’t exist becomes more mature) and will largely be based on…wait for it…carbon nanotubes!

I see how this happened to the hapless journalist. He interviewed two people. One was Dr Paul Seidler, coordinator of IBM’s nanoscale exploratory technology laboratory in Zurich, who knew precisely what he was talking about. And then there was Jim Tully, Head of Research at Gartner, who either had no idea what he was talking about or managed to make what he did know absolutely incomprehensible to the reporter.

The great pity of this article is that if the reporter had actually broken one of journalism’s silly rules and just interviewed Seidler, he would have had the makings of a very interesting article. Unfortunately, his journalism 101 instincts took hold and he made a hash out of it.

Is the Number of Nanomaterials Growing Too Fast?

Earlier this month, I raised the point that perhaps not all nano hype is related to business and market forecasts but is perhaps generated just as much from the research community.

Not a particularly original idea and I had the good fortune of having Eric Drexler’s blog lead me into considering it as a possibility.

But what are some of the effects of this torrent of nanotechnology research that seems to have gone free from its peer-review moorings?

The inaugural column over at Materials Views from Professor Geoffrey Ozin at the University of Toronto, suggests that we are reaching a saturation point with nanomaterials and we will need to step back and take stock of what we have before we are likely to reap any benefit from them.

Ozin even offers 10 recommendations that are so common sense one feels perplexed that this is not the state of things already.

 1. Learn how to make them more perfect and elucidate means to define the degree of perfection

2. Delineate metrics that demarcate the boundaries between molecular, nanoscale and bulk forms of matter

3. Establish situations when perfection is beneficial and when imperfection can be tolerated

4. Understand better their surface and bulk chemistry

5. Devise synthetic methods and characterization techniques for composition tuning and doping

6. Control and characterize surface and bulk defects

7. Improve control over their self-assembly and disassembly

8. Report information on their shelf-life in dry and humid air and under vacuum, their colloidal stability in different solvents, and how long they live when stimulated thermally, electrically and photolytically

9. Reduce-to-practice prototype devices, products or processes for your pet nanomaterial, and if successful, figure out how to scale up its production to industrial proportions in an economical and safe manner, and

10. Facilitate the transition of your idea to innovation that works and helps humankind.

The commercialization of nanotech long ago reached the point where pundits and businessmen were complaining about nanotech hype. However, the research community after agreeing to get to get on the nanotech bandwagon has been slow to cut off the gravy train. And who could blame them?

But as Ozin seems to imply if researchers don’t start taking care of this themselves, people from the outside will start correcting it for them, i.e. cut of funding.

ISO Standards for Nanomaterials Published

It seems as soon as nanomaterials were commercialized there have been efforts to establish standards for classifying them.

The ISO has been working on this issue for some time, and last year we even received updates on the progress of the working group.

The organization has recently announced its publication of a new technical report, ISO/TR 11360 Nanotechnologies – Methodology for the classification and categorization of nanomaterials, which according to the ISO, “offer[s] a comprehensive, globally harmonized methodology for classifying nanomaterials.”

The backbone of the new ISO system for classifying nanomaterials is something they are terming the “nano-tree”. As one might expect, the relationships between nanomaterials are laid out in a logical pattern like the branching out of a tree.

“The document provides users with a structured view of nanotechnology, and facilitates a common understanding of its concepts,” says Peter Hatto, Chair of the committee that developed the standard (ISO/TC 229). “It offers a systematic approach and a commonsensical hierarchy”.

Whether this type of standardization constitutes the removal of a key obstacle in the further development and commercialization of nanotechnology remains to be seen. But as they say, it can’t hurt.

It seems that efforts are ongoing to eliminate obstacles from the further commercialization of nanomaterials including this ISO report to the launching of a commodities exchange.

As fine as this no doubt is for the multi-national chemical companies who are selling and sometimes buying the bulk of these materials, it does seem odd that companies that are trying to use these materials to enable some commercial product seem to be allowed to languish into a slow, painful death.

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Dexter Johnson
Madrid, Spain
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