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Analog Angle Article

Will nanotech be a gold rush, or fool’s gold?

At the recent Nanotech 2006 event (www.nsti.org/nanotech2006), I expected to see the latest in developments in materials, applications, test and measurement, and other tangible markers.

The event's list of corporate and media sponsors was lengthy and impressive. The technical papers were sincere, detailed, and serious. Vendors of basic nanomaterials—mostly carbon tubes—had impressive microphotographs and specs, and I saw two exhibits of direct relevance to electrical engineers, from Agilent and Fluke. Both concerned the challenges of measuring the electrical properties of nanomaterials.

But what I didn’t expect was the large number of exhibitors hoping to both make, and ride along with, nanotech as “the next big thing.”. “Nano” has become one of those vital adjectives heavily used by marketers, to show their product or service is trendy. Even TurtleWax for cars now claims it has nanoparticles for improved performance, and it may even be true.

Thus, while some of the exhibits were actually technical, there were a lot of booths from law firms to help you patent and protect your developments; locales claiming either to already be nanotechnology centers or urging you to locate your business in their area; universities pitching their nanotech expertise; investment counselors who will link up venture capital and innovators; and others hoping to be on the ride.

My sense is that many of these companies and locations see nano as one of a few major growth technologies (along with life sciences), and want in. If nanotech is what comes after the semiconductor and IC explosions (summarized by the words “Silicon Valley”) they want to be a part of it. There's nothing wrong with that.

But at the same time, it all has an air of planned innovation which worries me. The history of innovation, whether in our industry or others, shows that relatively little of it comes from formal, planned efforts, detailed roadmaps, and grant-chasing. After all, the semiconductor industry and its critical material, fabrication, process, and instrumentation elements, grew where they did and how they did mostly through hard work, smart people, long hours, small and large advances, lots of investments, people taking wild chances, lucky guesses, lots of mistakes, and innumerable other factors.

Very few of the pioneers said “hey, this semiconductor stuff is the next technology, we need to properly position ourselves to be in it.” Sure, people saw both personal and financial opportunity, but they were generally insiders, not mercenaries who mostly wanted to come along for the ride. I worry when too many people who don't contribute anything tangible, except hype, get involved.

I also wonder if this entire “nanotech is the next big thing” concept is somewhat overplayed. The semiconductor industry has been doing it for years, via sputtering, implantation, deposition, crystal growth, and other atomic-level activities. The nano hype may be old wine with a new, snazzier label which both obscures and overplays its genuine accomplishments.

Bill Schweber , Site Editor, Planet Analog

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