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NanoBusiness Alliance Interview with Mihail Roco

Written by Vincent Caprio
February 20, 2011
Mihail Roco
Mihail Roco

This month, the NanoBusiness Alliance's Steve Waite talked to Mihail (”Mike”) Roco. Dr. Roco proposed the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) on March 11, 1999, at the White House, and is a key architect of the NNI. He is Senior Advisor for Nanotechnology to the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the founding chair of the U.S. National Science and Technology Council’s Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSTC/NSET).

Dr. Roco has been an international leader of nanotechnology development and of converging new technologies and initiated the first U.S. federal government program that focused on nanoscale science and engineering at NSF in 1991. In 2007, he was recognized with the National Materials Advancement Award from the Federation of Materials Societies “as the individual most responsible for support and investment in nanotechnology by government, industry, and academia worldwide.”

In this interview, Mike notes that nanotechnology is recognized today along with information technology and biotechnology as a megatrend in science and engineering. He points out that nanotechnology has provided solutions for about half of the new projects on energy conversion, energy storage, and carbon encapsulation in the last decade. In the coming decade, Mike expects nanotech commercialization to become a powerful driver of innovation, job and wealth creation in the global economy.

SW: It’s great to be speaking with you, Mike. Thanks for spending some time with us. You and a group of 250 leading scientists, researchers and experts in nanotechnology recently published a terrific book titled “Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020: Retrospective and Outlook” (Nano 2020, for short). It’s clear from reading the book that nanotechnology has come a long way in the past decade, but still has a long way to go. What do you consider to be the major achievements of the past ten years?

MR: Nano 2020 report provides a twenty-year overview of the development of nanotechnology from a fragmented scientific field at the end of the 1990s to a general purpose technology by 2020. The first part of the report evaluates the progress and outcomes of nanotechnology in the last ten years and how the vision set up in 1999 by Nano 2010 has been realized. Nano 2010 stands for the report “Nanotechnology Research Directions: Vision for the Next Decade” (NSTC, 1999 and Springer, 2000 ) that inspired the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and more than 60 other national programs. The first foundational phase of nanotechnology development “Nano 1″ (2000-2010) was dominated by a science-centric ecosystem. The second foundational phase “Nano 2″ (2011-2020) will be focused on nanoscale science and engineering integration. It is projected to be driven by socio-economic considerations.

In the last decade an interdisciplinary international community and a complex research and education infrastructure have been established. Nanotechnology has penetrated almost all industrial sectors and medicine, and the production of nanotechnology-enabled products has expanded with an annual rate of 25 percent to about $90 billion in the U.S. and $250 billion worldwide.

Scientific curiosity began to transform in 2000 with the help of two key parts of the Nano 2010 report. First, an integrative definition of nanotechnology was formulated based on distinctive behaviors of matter at the nanoscale and the ability to systematically control and engineer those behaviors. Second, a long-term vision and goals were articulated for the transformative potential of nanotechnology R&D to benefit society. Now, nanotechnology is recognized along with information technology and biotechnology as a megatrend in science and engineering.

One main outcome is a library of newly discovered nanoscale phenomena, processes and nanocomponents, as well as a versatile measurement and manufacturing tool-kit. These phenomena have become the foundation for new domains in science and engineering such as plasmonics, negative index of refraction in IR/visible wavelength radiation, spin torque transfer (spintronics), nanofluidics, programmable macromolecules, sub-cellular phenomena and synthetic biology, and teleportation of information between atoms. Other nanoscale phenomena are better understood such as quantum confinement, polyvalency, and shape anisotropy. New nanocomponents include one-dimensional nanowires and quantum dots of various compositions, polyvalent noble metal nanostructures, graphene, metamaterials, nanowire superlattices, and a wide variety of other particle compositions. New tools for nanotechnology have allowed femtosecond measurements with atomic precision in domains of engineering relevance. Single-phonon spectroscopy and sub-nanometer measurements of molecular electron densities have been performed. Single-atom and single-molecule characterization methods have emerged that allow researchers to probe the complex and dynamic nature of nanostructures in previously impossible ways. Together, these discoveries and tools have established a broad interdisciplinary foundation for new technologies.
Already, myriad R&D results include technological breakthroughs in such diverse fields as advanced materials, biomedicine, catalysis, electronics, and pharmaceuticals; expansion into new fields such as energy resources and water filtration, agriculture and forestry; and integration of nanotechnology with other emerging areas such as quantum information systems, neuromorphic engineering and synthetic and system nanobiology. “Nanomanufacturing” is already underway and is a growing economic focus.

Nanotechnology has provided solutions for about half of the new projects on energy conversion, energy storage, and carbon encapsulation in the last decade. Nanotechnology also has provided more than half of solutions for entirely new families of nanostructured and porous materials with very high surface areas, including metal organic frameworks, covalent organic frameworks, and zeolite imidazolate frameworks, for improved hydrogen storage and CO2 separations. Nanocomposite membranes, nanosorbents, and redox-active nanoparticles have been developed for water purification, oil spill cleanup, and environmental remediation.

There is greater recognition of the importance of nanotechnology-related environmental, health, and safety (EHS) issues for the first generation of nanotechnology products, and of ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) issues.
Nanotechnology has catalyzed overall efforts in and attracted talent to science and engineering in the last decade worldwide. A comprehensive list of outcomes arranged per areas of relevance is presented in the 600-page Nano 2020 report (Springer, 2010, available on www.wtec.org/nano2/ and www.nsf.gov/nano). The forecasts made in the Nano 2010 report generally have been realized, and some have been exceeded.

SW: The U.S. has invested some $12 billion in nanotech through the NNI over the past decade. Please give us a sense of how this investment has paid off to date and how it may payoff in coming years.

MR: Nanotechnology already has a major and lasting impact that promises to be more relevant for healthcare, environment and manufacturing here on Earth than the Space program. The cumulative U.S. nanotechnology commitment since 2000 places the NNI second only to the space program in terms of civilian science and technology investment (see Lok, C. 2010. Small Wonders. Nature 467:18-21, 2 September).

We are only at ten years of discovery and innovation enabled by investments in a field still in rapid formation, and only relatively simple nanostructures are in applications: nanolayers in multibillion dollar semiconductor industry, dispersions in multibillion dollar catalyst industry, and molecular recognition and targeting in multibillion dollar medical therapeutics, to name some of the most relevant. If one would consider an average tax of 20 percent and apply this to about $90 billion market incorporating nanotechnology in 2009, the result would be $18 billion that exceeds the total R&D investment of NNI in the last ten years. (Specific examples are presented in the Nano 2020 report.)

Nanotechnology has extensively penetrated several critical industries. Catalysis by engineered nanostructured materials impacts 30-40 percent of the U.S. oil and chemical industries (Chapter 10 in the Nano 2020 report); semiconductors with features under 100 nm constitute over 30 percent of that market worldwide and 60 percent of the U.S. market (Chapter on Long View in Nano 2020 report); molecular medicine is a growing field and only in 2010 about 15% of advanced diagnostics and therapeutics are nanoscience based. These and many other examples show nanotechnology is well on its way to reaching the goal set in 2000 for it to become a “general-purpose technology” with considerable economic impact.

Nanoscale science and engineering in the last ten years is a springboard for future nanotechnology applications and other emerging technologies. I estimate that introduction of nanotechnology in various economic sectors such as electronics and pharmaceutics will lead to at least 1 percent increase annually in productivity during 2010s in a similar manner as another general purpose technology – information technology – did in the 1990s.

SW: Nano 2020 report argues that we are moving into a new phase of nanotech evolution that you call “Nano 2.” What kinds of changes are we likely to see in the next phase of nanotechnology, and how will it differ from the first phase?

MR: The changes are significant as the field of nanotechnology reaches its “adolescence” in the next ten years (2010-2020). Since 2010, nanoscale science and engineering has changed focus in both R&D and outputs: we are transitioning from empirical synthesis of nanoscale components for improving existing products and services to science-based creation of new and complex nanosystems by design.

The transition from the Nano 1 foundational phase (2000-2010, focused on foundation interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale) to the Nano 2 integration phase (2010-2020, focused on NS&E integration for platform applications) includes achieving direct measurements at the nanoscale with time resolution of nanoscale processes and science-based design of nanomaterials and nanosystems. The focus of R&D and applications is expected to shift towards more complex nanosystems and new areas of relevance such as bio-nanomanufacturing, food systems and cognitive technologies, and fundamentally new products. This phase is expected to be dominated by an R&D ecosystem driven by socio-economic considerations. Nanotechnology development will be rapid and uneven, with global implications for the economy, balance of forces, environment, sustainability and public participation. Reversing the pyramid in education by earlier learning of general nanotechnology concepts in freshman and softmore years will become reality in undergraduate education.

SW: In Nano 2020, you talk about nanotechnology becoming a general purpose technology in the years ahead. Please explain what you mean by this and tell us why it is important.

MR: Nanotechnology will continue its widespread penetration of specific methods, tools and materials into the economy as a general-purpose technology, which – as with prior technologies such as electricity or computing – is likely to have widespread and far-reaching applications across many sectors. For example, nanoelectronics including nanomagnetics has a pathway to devices (including logic transistors and memory devices) with feature sizes below 10 nm and is opening doors to a whole host of innovations, including replacing electron charge as the sole information carrier. Many other vital industries will experience evolutionary, incremental nanotechnology-based improvements in combination with revolutionary, breakthrough solutions that drive new product innovations.

By 2020, there is potential to incorporate nanotechnology-enabled products and services into almost all industrial sectors and medical fields. Resulting benefits will include increased productivity and more sustainable development. New applications expected to emerge in the next decade range from low-cost photovoltaic devices (after about 2015), to affordable high-performance batteries enabling electric cars, to novel computing systems, cognitive technologies, and radical new approaches to diagnosis and treatment of diseases like cancer. As nanotechnology grows in a broader context, it will enable creation or advancements in new areas of research such as synthetic biology, cost-effective carbon capture, quantum information systems, neuromorphic engineering, geoengineering using nanoparticles, and other emerging and converging technologies.

Nanotechnology developments in the next decade will allow systematic design and manufacturing of nanotechnology products from basic principles, through a move towards simulation-based design strategies that use an increasing amount of fundamental science in applications-driven R&D, as defined in the Pasteur quadrant (Stokes 1997, Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation, Brookings Institution Press).

SW: You are projecting a 10-fold increase in the value of nano-enabled final product markets over the next ten years. What industries are likely to be among the most heavily impacted by nanotech during this time frame?

MR: The industries with largest applications will continue to be nanostructured chemicals (and especially catalysts), communication and information equipment, advanced structural nanomaterials, and pharmaceuticals. Other nano-enabled emerging areas of application with large rates of increase include biomedical equipment, energy and water resources, environmental improvement and safety, food and agricultural systems, forestry, hierarchical molecular manufacturing, and cognitive technologies. Current developments presage a burgeoning economic impact: trends suggest that the number of nanotechnology products and workers worldwide will double every three years, achieving a $1 trillion market and 2 million workers by 2015 and $3 trillion market and 6 million workers by 2020. This would correspond to a continuation of the annual growth rate of 25 percent and a 100-fold increase in 20 years (from 2000 to 2020). We have used here the NNI definition requiring a new property or function at the nanoscale. Nanotechnology R&D has become a socio-economic target in all developed countries and in many developing countries – an area of intense international collaboration and competition.

SW: Major semiconductor and electronics manufacturers would be having great difficulty innovating if it weren’t for nanotech capabilities. Yet, many people don’t consider companies like Intel, IBM, Apple and Micron nanotech companies. Do you see this perception changing in the future?

MR: Currently, all major companies producing semiconductors or memory components are in a race to introduce nanotechnology to remain competitive. Because nanotechnology components initially entered the semiconductor industry for improving CMOS, and those companies have other product lines, the perception has been divided. Once significantly improved performance of CMOS due to nanocomponents is proved and new paradigms for logic, memory and transmission of information are introduced using nanosystems – leading to products not available before – the perception will change definitively.

SW: Nanomanufacturing is coming of age. Do you think the U.S. can regain prominence in manufacturing through nanomanufacturing?

MR: Nanomanufacturing is an opportunity to add high added-value and high paying jobs to the economy. There are two main drivers that will be reinforced as we advance into nano’s second decade: creating products and services that were not possible before and more efficiently using materials, energy, environment and labor. The opportunities in the U.S. are particularly for the more sophisticated, new generations of nanotechnology products. The investment should focus on areas where there is capacity for assimilation in the U.S. economy, such as highly automated systems, distributed energy conversion and storage, nanobiotechnology, nanomedicine, integration with other emerging fields, and using specific infrastructure.

A condition for the U.S. achieving prominence in nanomanufacturing is focused R&D and support for continuing processes from discovery to innovation and commercialization at the national level. NSF has supported a funding program in nanomanufacturing since 2002 and the National Nanomanufacturing Network since 2006. Significantly larger efforts by industry, states and federal government are needed.

Another essential condition is the preparation of the workforce. Since 2001, NSF has supported a series of nanotechnology education activities including individual and group awards, the Nanotechnology Undergraduate Education (NUE) program and the Network for Computational Nanotechnology (NCN), the Nanotechnology Center for Learning and Teaching (NCLT) for multidisciplinary “horizontal” and K-Graduate “vertical” integration of formal education, Nanoscale Informal Science Education (NISE), the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) with education components, and Technological/Community College Nanotechnology education in NACK, among other awards. A main challenge now is to disseminate the results partly via Department of Education and Department of Labor to local school and job training systems. Another main challenge is to institutionalize the programs (like we did for IT) to ensure continuity and long-term impact.

Yet another challenge is to use the research results in U.S. industry, and here various national and international governance aspects need to be addressed. A main intellectual driver since 2000 has been the long view of nanotechnology development formulated in the Nano 2010 report that supported the Grand Challenge on Nanomanufacturing since 2002. The recent Nano 2020 report provides a continuation of that vision for nanomanufacturing development (see Chapters 3 and 13). The report encourages support of precompetitive R&D platforms, system application platforms, private-public consortia, and networks in areas such as health, energy, manufacturing tools, commercialization, sustainability, and nanotechnology EHS and ELSI. The platforms will ensure a “continuing” link between nanoscale fundamental research and applications, across disciplines and sectors.

Major industry involvement after 2002-2003 is an assurance for capturing the opportunities. For example, more than 5,400 U.S. companies had papers, patents, and/or products in 2008, and Moore’s law has continued for the past ten years, despite serious doubts raised in 2000 about the trend being able to continue into the nanoscale regime. The establishment of the NanoBusiness Alliance in 2001 was an earlier sign of industry interest.

SW: You note in the book that we are experiencing a qualitative change in nanotech due to direct measurement capabilities. Tell us why direct measurement is important and how it will alter the evolution of nanotech in the future?

MR: Instead of years of indirect measurements and deductive results (measurements based on time and volume averaging approaches mostly on surfaces) one can obtain immediately a realistic picture by a direct measurement. Direct measurements with atomic precision and time resolution of chemical/self-assembling reactions in the biological or engineering domains will open the opportunity to understand and optimize the nanoscale phenomena and processes, to help combinatorial methods and system design. Typical chemical reactions and atomic/molecular assembling processes need femtosecond resolution. The first such measurements for a collection of atoms were performed in 2009.

SW: Give us a sense of how you see nanotech EHS evolving in coming years as we move into the second foundational phase of nanotechnology (i.e., Nano 2).

MR: Nanotechnology EHS needs to be addressed on an accelerated path as an integral part of the general physico-chemical-biological research program and as a condition of application of the new technology. Knowledge is needed not only for the first generation, but also for the new generation of active nanostructures and nanosystems. As we discussed earlier, in about 2010, nanoscale science and engineering has begun a change of focus in both R&D and outputs. We are transitioning from empirical synthesis of nanoscale components to be incorporated into and improve existing products to science-based creation of new nanosystems for fundamentally new products. We need to emplace new principles and organizations for risk governance of new generations of nanotechnology products and processes with increased complexity, dynamics, biology contents, and uncertainty. There is a need for using nanoinformatics and computational science prediction tools to develop a cross-disciplinary, cross-sector information system for nanotechnology materials, devices, tools, and processes. A focus on nanotechnology EHS hazards and ELSI concerns must be routinely integrated into mainstream nanotechnology research and production activities to support safer and more equitable progress of existing and future nanotechnology generations.

The report Nano 2020 provides the outcomes in nanotechnology EHS and ELSI after the first 10 years of development, and research directions how to prepare for safe and ethical use of nanotechnology in the next ten years.

SW: We have seen a lot of growth in nanotech activities overseas in recent years, particularly in China and Korea. What do the numbers tell us today and what do you expect to see in the years ahead?

MR: The growth rate in investments and of number of publications is higher in several countries abroad, particularly after 2005, and the crisis of 2009 affected the U.S. more than the average of other countries. The U.S. maintains the lead in overall quality of papers and in patents as well as in the number of companies involved and the market. This position will be challenged in the future by the European Union, China, South Korea, Russia, as well as other countries for specific subfields of nanotechnology. The U.S. needs to continue to collaborate, compete, remain in the center of international exchanges, and develop mutually beneficial activities. All countries urgently need to better coordinate standards, regulations and sustainable development policies.

International development is rapid and uneven as described in detail in the Nano 2020 report. The report provides the international government investments per regions, as well as for companies and venture funding, between 2000 and 2009. The Science Citation Index paper and patent evolution over the past ten years also are provided. The average annual increases are between 23 percent and 35 percent.

While conceptually most countries generally follow the nanotechnology and converging technologies concepts initially advanced in the Nano 1 report, there are several differences. Other countries have dedicated more funds for applications, and information exchange has been more limited in those areas. Balanced exchange of information and collaborations based on mutual interest is essential for rapid nanotechnology development.

SW: One last question, Mike. In Nano 2, you state that nanotechnology is still in an early stage of development. What are the main challenges for nanotech and the nanotech community over the next decade?

MR: A lot of progress has been made in the last ten years. And yet, nanoscale science, engineering, and technology are still in a formative stage, with most of their growth potential ahead and in still-emerging directions. We cannot yet do direct measurement, build by computational design for a given function or even understand the special-temporal complexity of a general nanosystem.

There is a need for continued, focused investment in theory, direct measurement, and simulation at the nanoscale. We need to promote focused R&D programs, such as “signature initiatives,” “grand challenges,” and other kinds of dedicated funding programs, to support the development of measuring and production tools, manufacturing capabilities in critical R&D areas, and a nanotechnology-adapted innovation ecosystem.

Partnerships between industry, academia, NGOs, multiple agencies, and international organizations need increased attention. Priority should be given to support R&D platforms and creation of additional regional “nano-hubs” for R&D, system-oriented academic centers, earlier nanotechnology education, nanomanufacturing, nanotechnology EHS and ELSI. We need to promote global coordination to develop and maintain viable international standards, cross-sector nomenclatures and databases, and patents and other intellectual property protections. We should seek international coordination for nanotechnology EHS activities (such as safety testing and risk assessment and mitigation) and nanotechnology ELSI activities (such as broadening public participation and addressing the gaps between developing and developed countries). An international co-funding mechanism is envisioned for maintaining databases, nomenclature, standards, and patents. Another priority is the development of experimental and predictive methods for exposure and toxicity to multiple nanostructured compounds. A further challenge is support for horizontal, vertical, and system integration in nanotechnology education, to create or expand regional centers for learning and research, and to institutionalize nanoscience and nanoengineering educational concepts for K-16 students. Furthermore, we need to explore new strategies for mass dissemination, public awareness, and participation related to nanotechnology R&D, breaking through gender, income, and ethnicity barriers. This is a great challenge in the next ten years.

Ambitious scientific and technical goals remain over the next decade, including (a) Integration of knowledge at the nanoscale and of nanocomponents in nanosystems with deterministic and complex behavior, aiming toward creating fundamentally new products; (b) Better control of molecular self-assembly, quantum behavior, creation of new molecules, and interaction of nanostructures with external fields in order to build materials, devices, and systems by modeling and computational design; (c) Understanding of biological processes and of nano-bio interfaces with abiotic materials, and their biomedical and health/safety applications, and nanotechnology solutions for sustainable natural resources and nanomanufacturing; and (d) Governance to increase innovation and public-private partnerships; oversight of nanotechnology safety and equity building on nascent models for addressing EHS, ELSI, multi-stakeholder and public participation; and increasing international collaborations in the process of transitioning to new generations of nanotechnology products. Sustained support for education, workforce preparation, and infrastructure all remain pressing needs.

As nanotechnology applications are expected to satisfy essential societal needs in production, medicine, education, defense and overall economy, an overarching challenge is to institutionalize the nanotechnology in R&D, education, manufacturing, medicine, EHS and ELSI programs. The experience of leading experts from 35 countries is reflected in the comprehensive Nano 2 report. I encourage the readers to look on this material and get involved in solving the challenges ahead.

SW: Thanks again for your time, Mike. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. We wish you all the best in the coming year and beyond.

The Nanotechnology Community sincerely thanks Dr. Roco for his efforts and vision in furthering the science of Nanotechnology during the last decade.

Last updated: March 15, 2012
 

DOI: 10.4053/fe493-110220

Tags: Policy and Regulation, Nano 2020

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