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Senate scrutinizes U.S. nanotech investments

September 18, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- The U.S. is in a race with the rest of the world to develop nanotechnology, and other countries are matching America's investment in a science that promises to revolutionize computing.
European Union nations, Japan and a number of East Asian countries including China and Taiwan are keeping pace with U.S. spending on basic research in nanotechnology, according to experts in the area. Consequently, U.S. spending on a technology that manipulates matter atom by atom is only about 25% of the world's total.
"It's a dogfight -- the rest of the world simply is not going to allow us to outspend them," Stanley Williams, a fellow and director of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s quantum science research, said in an interview. "We are going to have to be qualitatively better because we are not going to be quantitatively larger."
Nanotechnology is getting a lot more attention from the government. Indeed, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space yesterday held the Senate's first hearing on the new science, signaling recognition of nanotechnology's growing importance to U.S. global competitiveness.
But while government and business investment in nanotechnology is on the rise, it may not be enough to fix some of the research and funding problems affecting the industry, said experts who testified at the hearing.
To help address that, Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), the subcommittee chair, introduced a bill this week creating national nanotechnology research centers, improved coordination of federal efforts to fund nanotechnology and an annual review of the nanotechnology research effort in the U.S. and internationally. The bill seeks $433 million to accomplish its goals.
"Funding is not enough; there has to be careful planning to make sure the funding is used for sound science," said Wyden. Bill co-sponsors are Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and George Allen (R-Va.).
Separately, the Bush administration is seeking $679 million for basic nanotechnology research for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, a 17% increase over current spending.
Business investment in nanotechnology start-ups is also on the rise, moving from $100 million in 1999 to a projected $1 billion by next year, said Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the New York-based NanoBusiness Alliance, who testified at the hearing. There are about 1,000 nanotech business start-ups operating today, about half of which are located in the U.S.
But Modzelewski and Williams, who also testified yesterday, criticized nanotechnology research efforts at U.S. universities.
Williams, in particular, said major companies have helped fund nanotechnology research at universities only to find that university researchers then used the research to form start-up companies.
"Large companies have been burned many, many times by giving money for research to universities, only to find that they had absolutely no rights to the intellectual property," said Williams. He said it has been "far easier for me to start up a research collaboration with a university in Russia or China or France" than at a U.S. school.
But Samuel Stupp, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the director of its Institute for Bioengineering and Nanoscience in Advanced Medicine, said most universities are "extremely careful" to grant intellectual property licenses fairly. He urged the subcommittee to look at what's going on nationally before reaching any conclusions.
Nanotechnology is expected to ultimately lead to computers in which molecules serve as diodes, wires and transistors -- all linked chemically. From these CPUs, tiny computing devices would emerge that use very little power and yet are millions or billions of times more powerful than today's Pentium chips.These systems, and the applications needed to run them, are many years from development, but manufacturers are making inroads.
Just this month, Hewlett-Packard announced that it created the highest-density electronically addressable memory on record, a 64-bit memory using molecular switches that are less than one square micron in size (see story). The bit density is 10 times greater than a silicon chip.
In June, IBM said it had produced a nano-scale storage system capable of a data storage density of 1 trillion bits per square inch -- 20 times higher than the densest magnetic storage available today.

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