Intel's research chief tells nano crowd to think even smaller
By Matt Kelly
Small Times Correspondent
BOSTON, March 10, 2004 - Some of the most influential corporate and government voices in nanotechnology gave the industry a stern warning this week to get cracking on commercially viable products, as people from around the world flocked here for one of nanotech's largest-ever gatherings.
Nanotech 2004, a trade show that started on Sunday and wraps up Thursday, has drawn an estimated 1,800 people - far more than expected, and three times the turnout from only two years ago. What's more, for the first time the event has a distinctly commercial feel. Seventy-five groups have sponsored booths on the exhibition floor, hawking everything from nanotubes to thin films to legal services.
``The success of the show has mirrored the explosion in nanotech,'' said Matthew Laudon, executive director of the Nano Science and Technology Institute and Nanotech 2004's organizer. ``When we started out seven years ago, we were a small gathering of scientists ... and now we've become a full-fledged trade show with exhibitors, investors, early-stage and research companies from all over the world.''
Still, a dominant theme here is the need to demonstrate useful results - that is, products and jobs - from government money pouring into nanotech research. The U.S. federal government alone has earmarked $921 million for the National Nanotech Initiative this year, plus several billion more in the future.
Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office and the keynote speaker, warned that lawmakers in Congress will eye nanotech investment with ever-more scrutiny as federal expenditures surpass $1 billion in the next several years.
``I assure you that everybody expects some return on that investment,'' Teague said. ``They're looking to you and me in the research community'' to deliver practical economic benefit.
Fellow keynote speaker David Tennenhouse, meanwhile, warned that not enough federal and university dollars are going to applied research to solve problems in areas such as nanomanufacturing. Tennenhouse, director of research for Intel Corp., said the trend worries him so much he now raises his concerns at the start of his public speeches to ensure the audience hears it.
``In general, our spending hasn't kept pace ... I'm particularly concerned that the application of this [basic] research is lagging,'' he said.
Tennenhouse also urged researchers to think very small: 10 nanometers or less. The semiconductor industry already knows how to reduce logical gates from 90 nanometers today to 22 nanometers by 2009, he said. The real challenge will come in the subsequent decade, as gates shrink to 5 nanometers and the industry tries to incorporate exotic ideas such as gates wrapped around a transistor rather than layered on top.
``We really need to get much more focused there,'' Tennenhouse said. ``It would be much more constructive for the community to get focused on that work.''
Others warned that U.S. universities and corporations must accelerate their commercialization of nanotech before other nations beat them to the punch. Louis Ross of the Global Emerging Technology Institute noted that Japan's investment in nanotechnology virtually equals that of the United States. Moreover, he said, much of the first wave of nanotech commercialization is likely to be in composite materials.
The customer base for that sector is filled with large Asian manufacturers. Those businesses have historically sent precious corporate research dollars to U.S. universities, but might shift that money closer to home if institutions in Japan and other Asian nations prove just as capable in nanotech research. ``I think that will be scrutinized a bit more,'' Ross said.
Despite the cautionary notes struck by Teague and Tennenhouse, other Nanotech 2004 attendees hinted that real results will be forthcoming soon. NEC Corp. said the company plans to release a fuel cell next year based on carbon nanohorns, to keep laptop computers running for days rather than hours.
NASA researchers are developing an artificial retina with carbon nanotubes to fight macular degeneration. And more than 25 startups pitched their stories in various venture forums during the trade show, promoting nanotech in everything from thin films to magnetic resonance imaging to optical components.
Walter Packard, managing director at the renowned Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, praised the flurry of nanotech startups as a hothouse of innovation - sure to drive some unwise speculation, he said, but crucial to find the underlying technical processes to make nanotech a viable technology.
``Clearly there's going to be a bubble,'' Packard said. ``But that's OK.''
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