by Anton Polouektov
Nanotechnology, the science of developing molecular structures smaller than 100 nanometers (one nanometer equals to about one billionth of a meter) in size, has been steadily gaining ground as a major research and manufacturing field since its initial discovery some three decades ago. Practical applications of Nanotechnology are varied – they include self-cleaning surfaces, better water filtration systems, more effective sunscreens, and faster electronic microprocessors.
Nanotechnology holds an attractive promise – focusing on sciences and industries across the spectrum, it can help in the creation of stronger new materials, more potent medicines, and longer-lasting fabrics. In the long run, nanotechnology has the potential to completely revolutionize the way we live.
Given its tremendous potential, the great interest of government agencies, business leaders, and educational pioneers in nanotechnology comes as no surprise, and with nanotechnology remaining one of the few research & development fields continuing to expand rapidly in the midst of the economic crisis, interest in it is unlikely to fade any time soon.
With major companies from every industry setting up their own in-house nanotechnology divisions and government-sponsored nanotech research organizations commanding increasingly impressive budgets, institutions of higher learning around the globe are eager to step in to provide qualified personnel for the thousands of newly-opened research and development positions in the burgeoning Nanotechnology field.
When all of these factors are taken into consideration, one conclusion is patently obvious – given today’s uncertain economic situation, nanotechnology remains an excellent field from both career-focused and investment-based perspectives. From the career perspective, it is a field that can provide stable employment with great advancement opportunities for anyone strong in the natural sciences, engineering, or software development. Likewise, to investors nanotechnology can offer persistently stable growth and attractive future prospects.
We talked to Dr. Yuri Lvov, Professor of Micromanufacturing at Louisiana Tech University, to get more information on this cutting edge field and its implications for the U.S economy.
Are there many career opportunities currently available for potential inductees into the nanotechnology field?
The field of nanotechnology does not exist as a specialty. And I don’t think that there are many career opportunities to be found in Nanotechnology per se as it is not, itself, a self-contained field – it is not physics, not chemistry, not biology. It is more of an ideology – a tectonic shift in approaches to research and professional training, in advances of high-precision instrumentation and manufacturing techniques to allow them to work on the nano-scale.
The current trend towards nano-scale research and manufacturing can be best compared with the paradigm shift that took place in the scientific and industrial sectors of the United States in the 1970s – at that time, a shift to the micron scale overtook high-technology industries and research institutions, changing manufacturing techniques and educational practices. The result was the appearance of all-new technologies and types of products, such as electronic microchips. Today, we are faced with similar developments. As a result of this shift, a pronounced need is arising of fundamental scientists, engineers, and medical professionals who can effectively work on the nano-scale, rather than the need for an all-new “Nanotechnologist” profession.
What qualifications are preferred by research institutions and large corporations’ When evaluating potential employment candidates, what sort of specialists are they looking for?
First and foremost, they are looking for specialists with a solid background in the fundamental sciences – chemistry, physics, biology and engineering. Unfortunately, we are increasingly seeing attempts to capitalize on the nano-scale paradigm shift – some educational institutions offer nanotechnology programs that do not prepare potential applicants for the real world of nanotechnology, failing to foster their abilities in the fundamentals of science. By definition, nanotechnology is inter-disciplinary, combining physics, chemistry, and biology at the nano-scale.
Are there extensive educational opportunities available for those seeking to enter the nanotechnology field?
There is not yet an established nanotechnology curriculum in existence, though there are plenty of proposals for instituting one. Today, nanotechnology education can be described as a combination of the skills and know-how of professors and specialists employed at a given university who are proficient in the field. In other words, nano-science education is currently very heterogeneous. I am unsure whether a dedicated nanotechnology curriculum would be in big demand were it to exist – fundamental sciences form the base of nanotechnology work and applicants with a strong grasp of the fundamentals will be advantaged when seeking Nanotechnology-related positions. At the end of the day, training in nanotechnology has to supplement basic science curricula.
In your view, do American Nanotechnology programs compare favorably with those offered abroad in countries such as Germany and Japan, which are commonly recognized as some of the world’s most prominent Nanotechnology leaders?
Having worked in both of these countries, I can begin by saying that neither in Germany nor in Japan are there dedicated Nanotechnology programs and neither country awards degrees in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology there is mostly viewed as an element of graduate education following an undergraduate degree in physics or chemistry. Like in the United States, serious scientists and engineers in those countries focus on the fundamental sciences, viewing them through the prism of the nano scale. Overall, the world’s nanotechnology leaders – the United States, Germany, and Japan – are closely matched in their level of advancement and quality of nano-science education.
Do you think that the surge of investment that today makes Nano-science one of the most dynamic research fields is set to continue in the foreseeable future?
I believe that investors will focus not on the broad field of nano-scale research as a whole but on particular areas of nano-science and, more specifically, on individual products and devices. The time when investors would gladly fund projects simply because they were told that Nano-science was being done is already gone. For instance, if you look at the National Science Foundation data you’ll notice that the Federal government has trimmed down investment in “nano-science,” diverting funds instead to nano-manufacturing.
The focus has shifted from small-scale research work to actual practical application – investors want tangible results that can be turned into marketable products, not ephemeral promises of payoff years down the line. The Federal funding shift emphasizes this. Corporations, too, will cease funding projects just because they are focusing on Nano-science in favor of funding individual products that have been improved by alterations at the nano-scale. The question asked now is: “If you made your device on the nano-scale, is it cheaper and better than if it were on the micron scale?”
In your opinion, do recent advances in the nanotechnology field herald scientific breakthroughs, such as practical use of nanomachines, leading to an explosive growth of the field?
We are hoping for such breakthrough advances, but we’re not certain whether we are really close to them. The NSF Nano-science program, for instance, promises major breakthroughs within the next two to three decades. The breakthrough we are looking for is the implementation of bio-mimetic concepts to technology – making technological devices that function similarly to biological organisms. Major steps in that direction have already been taken – Intel’s and IBM’s new computer chips made using nano scale techniques are the smallest such chips yet, but it is not so much a breakthrough as a logical progression of the miniaturization of electronics. A drastic improvement in drug efficiency can also be foreseen in the near future – with nano-particle delivery, drugs can be targeted to individual organs or cells without being dissipated throughout the entire body, which would make drugs overall much safer and more efficient. I think this may be realized within the next five to ten years.
Concerns have been raised in scientific circles about the possible environmentally harmful impact of current practices of Nanotechnology manufacturing; do you think that the negative publicity arising out of this situation has the potential to dampen interest of investors and educators in Nanotechnology?
I don’t think that this is a big problem – nano-fabrication doesn’t impact the environment in nearly as drastic a way as some would have us believe. We are exposed to nano particles all the time, such as clay and silica routinely used in paper, metal and carbon nanoparticles found in paint, and materials burned by fire. Besides, proteins and viruses are also nanoparticles with diameters 2-50 nm. All of these have been our constant companions for thousands of years. The new focus on nano-scale manufacturing doesn’t change anything as far as environmental impact goes. I do believe that a healthy level of caution should be exercised with nano-manufacturing, just like with any other manufacturing techniques and I believe that we have to control nano-particle emissions, but I don’t think they’re very dangerous as compared to the better-known sources of chemical pollution. The main problem facing us is a potential increase in nano-particle concentration through industry practices, but that isn’t anything that can’t be fixed by regulation.