Nanotechnology in Russia is Boomingâ¿¿or is it?

In a brief report from RBC (RosBusinessConsulting), which describes itself on its website as â''the first Russian information agency, specializing in business newsâ'', Russian sales of nanotechnology products are expected to amount to $700 billion in 2008, according to First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov at a Federation Council session.

Iâ''m not sure if we can believe that number because in another blurb distributed at the same time, the publication reports that by 2015 sales of Russia's nanotechnology products would amount to some RUB 900bn (approx. USD 38.25bn). Quite a drop. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, and deduce that they meant RUB 700bn, rather than dollars, it's still a large number and shows little growth over the ensuing seven years.

But with either sum, letâ''s give you a little context so you can judge for yourself whether these numbers are to be believed. According to organizations whose job it is to come up with these kinds of market estimates, the entire global market for nanotechnology (including semis) in 2007 is somewhere between $130-$150 billion. And the projections of the market by 2015 estimates between $1 to $1.5 trillion.

So according to the first report, Russia alone will have nanotechnology-enabled products valued about 5 times the size of the entire global nanotechnology market in 2007. Thatâ''s impressive, albeit somewhat dubious.

What makes this particularly doubtful is how recently Russia even decided to have a nanotechnology program. In June 2006, just under 2 years ago, President Vladimir Putin announced a grand strategy to make Russia a leading player in the field of nanotechnology that came with a pledge of $5 billion in initial spending, with other reports claiming that $7 billion would be spent in the first 8 years of the program.

Thatâ''s certainly putting your money where your mouth isâ'¿but the Economic Development and Trade Ministry objected to the proposal to start the program in 2007 and proposed launching it in 2008 and completing it five years later. As a result, according to published reports, the government announced an allocation of about $150 million for nanotechnology in the federal budget for 2007. Not quite the billions of dollars everyone was all excited about.

But even if Russia had allocated billions of dollars into nanotech on January 1, 2007, there is little chance that the money would buy the necessary equipment, fund the research, etc., etc. in just one year. The problem is further exacerbated by reports that while Russia has some great scientists and has some history of doing ground breaking work in nanotechnology its infrastructure for performing cutting-edge nanotechnology research is sorely lacking.

In addition to doubts about Russia actually being able to do the R&D that would lead to new nanotechnology-enabled products is that they donâ''t have a lot of industrial sectors that could use nanotechnology other than the oil industry. According to the RBC blurb, Ivanov indicated that â''nanotechnology research had made it possible to manufacture ultra-strong cutting faces for various instruments and rocket fuel with a great burn rateâ''. Wowâ'¿just that accounts for $700 billion?

To provide you some more context, take Taiwan for example. Itâ''s a small country, highly industrialized with some key industries such as electronics and textiles that can start using nanotechnology today and making an impact. And they recently reported that after six years under a clear program to come up with nanotechnology-enabled products and $615 million in funding, they believe they can show an economic impact of $9.68 billion. Thatâ''s a far cry from Russiaâ''s claim of $700 billion.

No, this figure for 2008 is not to be taken seriously, and the far smaller number for 2015 seems a wee optimistic. Either itâ''s a mistake or someone is hyping the numbers. If it is the latter, it is somewhat troubling since it may be an indication that the whole Russian nanotech program, which has been burdened with doubters, who believe that corruption will rule the way things are done, may be getting off on the wrong foot.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.