Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The smaller the better/China’s investments in nano R&D have increased by over 20 percent each year in the past decade

MONITOR: The smaller the better

- Jun 21st 2001
 “Fantastic Voyage” showed the way

TIME was when nanotechnology was equated to intergalactic space travel—science fiction for the cinema, with little relevance for the real world. How things change. Last May, Ottilia Saxl of the Institute of Nanotechnology, a non-profit organisation based in Stirling, Scotland, gathered more than 100 venture capitalists, investment analysts, industrial bigwigs and start-up hopefuls to a meeting on investing in nanotechnology, held at the Royal Society in London. After the dotcom bust and the fibre-optics glut, nanotechnology has suddenly become the refuge of choice for technologically obsessed investors. But why “nano”—and what is it, anyway?
The sci-fi version of swarms of “nanorobots” repairing cells in the bloodstream is as far off as ever. A more practical definition concedes that anything precisely fabricated with dimensions of less than 100 nanometres (a nanometre is a millionth of a millimetre) fits the bill. This includes everything from particles for skin cream to next-generation transistors. By this definition, nanotechnology is already a multi-billion dollar business.
Unfortunately, such a definition sprawls over too wide a swathe of industries to be useful. A more practical distinction, at least when it comes to investment, is between the sort of nanotechnology that is plotted on industrial roadmaps, such as the semiconductor industry's detailed plans for the next decade of microelectronics miniaturisation; and the kind that pops up unannounced in more conservative, slower-moving industries. The latter is less predictable, but often more spectacular when it finally breaks through.
Matthias Werner, a technology analyst at Deutsche Bank, illustrates this second type of nanotechnology breakthrough graphically with videos of a surgical scalpel based on a nanostructured diamond. This slices much more neatly into eyeballs to remove a cataract than standard tools because its edges are less jagged. The technology is now being commercialised by Gesellschaft für Diamantprodukte (GFD), a company based in Ulm, Germany.
Another useful distinction that James Chilcott of Evolution Capital, a venture-capital firm based in London, points to is the difference between “one-shot wonders” on the one hand, and firms that have a strategy for developing successive generations of products based on proprietary technology on the other.
A good example of the second type is Nanomat of Dublin, Ireland, which is developing a series of products based on nanoparticles made of metal oxides. Thin films of such nanoparticles could be used to make digital displays with the look and feel of paper. A product based on this technology is expected to be on the market within a couple of years.
Donald Fitzmaurice, a professor of nanomaterials at University College Dublin, and the founder of Nanomat, believes that thin films made of metal-oxide nanoparticles could have a promising future in solar cells and batteries. They could also be used to help diagnose diseases in people. Nanomat is aware that clinical trials could delay the commercialisation of medical applications for years. However, having a pipeline of potential nanotech innovations coming steadily on stream in different sectors, at different times, is what attracts investors.
Evolution Capital is not the only firm scrutinising the emerging nanotechnologies for possible winners. At least half a dozen other venture-capital firms have launched nanotech funds in the past six months. Chevron Technology Ventures, the investment arm of the American oil and gas group, launched a $100m fund in April to invest in start-up firms—with nanotechnology as one of its main themes. There is even a website (www.nanoinvestornews.com) to keep investors up to date on nanotechnology opportunities.
What can investors expect? Ramon Compaño, a technology co-ordinator at the European Commission in Brussels, points to the scanning-probe microscope—a device that produces images of nanometre-sized objects. A decade ago, a number of companies set out to commercialise such microscopes. Several of these have since either merged or been snapped up by larger firms. However, that has not stopped new entrants from continuing to join the fray, with novel twists on the basic scanning-probe design. This picture of a technological ecosystem in which mature firms are gobbled up while new ones appear has a lot in common with the history of biotechnology. No “new economy” is needed to explain this kind of industrial evolution, believes Mr Compaño.
Shell-shocked venture capitalists fleeing the dotcom pounding seem to be finding the world of the super-small an attractive shelter—at least for the time being. The danger is that the investment firms' expectations could run too far ahead of nanotechnology's ability to deliver. Whether investors have the patience to hang around for the pay-off is the big question.

What Does Nanotechnology Mean to Geopolitics?

Senior Fellow and Head of the Geopolitics and Global Futures Program at Geneva Center for Security Policy
decades old and has already affected fields as diverse as consumer goods, weapons and therapeutic procedures. As it promises to revolutionize industries and accelerate convergence of sciences and disciplines, it’s also bringing about societal and geopolitical shifts.
A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 80,000-100,000 nanometers wide. The manipulation of matter at this scale offers innovative tools to expand the limits of what is possible, allowing for the creation of new materials or the modification of existing ones. At the nanoscale, the properties of materials can differ fundamentally from their characteristics at the macro scale. For example, despite weighing one-sixth as much as steel, carbon nanotubes are 100 times stronger.
The incremental development of nanotechnology and its transformative capacity are not without national security implications. Recognizing its enormous potential, the federal government of the United States established the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000 in order to maximize coherence of research and development (R&D). The initiative supports the infrastructure to develop nanotech “for the public good.”

Why Nanotech Matters for Geopolitical Competition

As an enabling technology, nanotech can improve or revolutionize industries such as electronics, IT, energy, oil industry, environmental science, medicine, homeland security, food security, transportation and many more. The role of the U.S. as the still-uncontested world leader in nanoscience will be put to test as numerous European countries, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan and others are devoting more and more funding to nano research.
China’s investments in nano R&D have increased by over 20 percent each year in the past decade. An understanding that a boost in sciences is critical for future competitiveness has led the Chinese government to provide an extra stimulus package in 2009, with over $19 billion reserved for R&D. In 2011, Russia, Korea and Singapore launched the Asia Nanotechnology Fund, which recognized that “nanotechnology is a key enabler technology for many sectors, providing for tremendous growth opportunities.”
Hundreds of commercial products now rely on nanoscale materials and processes; the market share is estimated to be between $50 billion and $1 trillion. Although commercial forecasts vary, it is without doubt that nanotech is increasingly critical for national power, a premise that follows from both current and potential military applications of nanotech.
The U.S. Department of Defense identified nanotechnology as one of the six strategic research areas in the mid-1990s, and in recent years, emerging or so-called “re-emerging” powers have increased their investments. With the use of nanotechnology, Russia has already successfully developed the world’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb, with a blast radius of 300 meters and the ability to contain the equivalent of 44 tons of explosives (the U.S. bomb is equivalent to 11 tons).
The development of nanotechnology and its transformative capacity are not without national security implications.

Seven State Capabilities

The correlation between nanotech and national security is often limited to applications of nanotech in the military (and the extent to which it can redefine technological asymmetries on the battlefield). It is, however, crucial to understand that the repercussions of nanotechnology on geopolitics and national power are more far-reaching. In a previous work, Neo-Statecraft and Meta-Geopolitics, I advocated a “meta-geopolitical framework” that is more suitable for our globalized, connected and interdependent world. In this, I suggested that national power is best described in terms of seven key state capabilities:
  1. Social and health issues—Nanotechnology can have enormous implications in medicine and therapeutic procedures by improving diagnostics and providing better and faster cell repair. Nanorobots injected to fight cancerous cells can provide targeted drug delivery and make repairs at the cellular level (and potentially even correct failing organs). The DNA nanocage, designed from the body’s own molecules, is developed to “trap” diseases at the molecular level. “Nanosponges,” tiny polymer nanoparticles, could absorb toxins while removing them from the bloodstream. Gold nanoparticles could be used to detect early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The breakthroughs in nanomedicine will provide us with unprecedented control over the human body and will simultaneously raise social and ethical debates.
  2. Domestic politics—Nanotechnology could offer both new platforms for better (and more intrusive) surveillance as well as more efficient technologies for domestic security and emergency response. For example, certain nano-materials could be employed for creating better sensors that detect hazardous materials and nanorobots could be used to deactivate bombs.
  3. Economy—Nanotech is relevant for fields such as agriculture, where nanosensors could monitor crop growth or detect plant pathogens. It has already been in use for many electronics and it provides smaller, faster and more energy-efficient systems. Nanoscale transistors, for instance, are not only smaller, but also faster and more powerful than their conventional counterparts. To boost their oil industries, states are now looking into the potential of using nanoparticles of silica to make oil extraction faster and cheaper.
  4. Environment—Some of the hype around nanotech has focused on its potential to reverse environmental degradation: nanostructured filters and smart nano-materials could purify water or detect contamination. Furthermore, nanotech could have beneficial applications for battery-recycling processes, provide solutions for oil spills and improve the efficiency of solar panels through the incorporation of nanoparticles in solar-panel films.
  5. Science and human potentialA distinct feature of nanotech research has been the convergence with other fields, such as biology, material science, cognitive science, chemistry, engineering, etc. This convergence has generated dynamic interdisciplinary exchanges and the emergence of fields that integrate nanotech with other fields, including nano-medicine, nano-manufacturing, nano-electronics, etc.
  6. Military and security potentialSome of the most groundbreaking innovations in the defense industry rely on nano-enabled applications, which span the different phases of military operations. Examples include nanostructures for invisibility cloaks for concealing soldiers, vehicles or weapons; a wide range of smarter and more devastating weapons; and, with the use of carbon nanotubes, lighter and stronger armor and vehicles. Nanotech could also change the future of communications through microscope computers, help develop high-power lasers, or help improve soldiers’ uniformsby incorporating thermal, chemical and biological sensing systems.
  7. DiplomacyNanotech will significantly alter the nature of warfare and weaponry, including nuclear weapons, with inevitable consequences for disarmament diplomacy. The tendency towards increased miniaturization, nano-engineered high-explosives, high performance sensors and many other devices will require new negotiations of standards of arms controls and compliance with international law.
Another consequence of nano-enabled miniaturization and heightened precision on the battlefield will be that some of the political costs of war will be reduced. Soldiers will be better protected and civilian casualties (presumably) minimized.  At the same time, the use of nanotechnologies with highly destructive potential will exacerbate asymmetries and complicate post-war reconciliation or relations between countries.
From everyday commercial products to diplomacy and war, nanotechnology is set to be a highly transformative and consequential technology for the decades to come. In the early 20th century, Halford Mackinder advanced his notion of “the pivot of history,” the idea that whoever commanded the pivot area of the heartland commanded the world. Such geopolitical thinking is now obsolete but we can use this analogy to reflect on the future relevance of nanotechnology and other similar disruptive and transformative technologies. Given its immense potential to affect different state capabilities, R&D of nanotechnology will be critical for national power.
Transnational geostrategic competition in this field is increasing exponentially, and although the U.S. is currently at the forefront of nanotech R&D, it’s uncertain how long it can continue to maintain its status of absolute global leadership over the “science of small things.”