Nanoartifacts and Business – Denis Loveridge, PREST , UK

The use of the term nanoartifacts may be unfamiliar but is deliberately intended to focus on tangible outcomes for business and industry. It is also intended to deflect thought away from the misleading term ‘nanotechnol-ogy’ with its implication of a unified branch of technology already associated with unreasonable expectations. Two ways of thinking about the words ‘business’ and ‘nanoartifacts’ are the phrases ‘the business of nanoarti-facts’ and its converse ‘nanoartifacts in business.’

It is necessary to avoid the habit of producing ever-growing lists of so-called markets for nanoartifacts. To some industries nanoartifacts are far from new while to others they represent the excitement typified by ‘gee-whiz’ technology that the unwary rush toward but are often abhorred like the plague by most companies. The ‘business of nanoartifacts’ concerns how they are created now and how they may be created at some time in the future. By contrast ‘nanoartifacts in business’ focuses on how they may influence business through investment and the like.

Systems integration is fundamental to the business of artefacts because of their integrative character. There is nothing unusual in systems integration or that it has to be based on the appropriate science, technology and en-gineering. However, for nanoartifacts migration to the length scale of 1 to 100 nanometres, the zone of immedi-ate interest, distinctly shifts the regime into the quantum world. Nanoartifacts are created at the molecular or atomic scale where chemists, biologists and material scientists have worked for a very long time. By contrast, information technology has only recently begun to migrate toward nanoartifacts through for example, the use of read/write heads that make use of the giant magnetoresistive effect. Whilst the length scale is not sufficient to define the character of nanoartifacts, it remains a simple way to indicate a current zone of attention for many industries and companies.

In the current state of fluidity and uncertainty in science it may be as well to invoke Barrow’s notions of the ‘limits of science and the science of limits’. The nature of the argument is summed up succinctly in a quotation from Victor Hugo ‘..man is not a circle with a single centre; he is an ellipse with two foci. Facts are one, ideas are the other.’ The quotation crystallises the argument between those who see a world totally changed by nanoartifacts and others who do not. The negative argument denies that what the limits of science permits will necessarily be capable of translation into artefacts by technology and engineering. Also Joy has expressed ethical concerns about the most extreme forms of nanoartifacts, especially those that self-assemble and self-replicate. The debate may seem remote but it is influencing over enthusiastic pronouncements that are being taken up by politicians, governments, market analysts and others who influence the directions taken by invest-ment and research and development.

Nanoscience is by any measure breathtaking, a description used by and reinforces the notion that the translation of science into technology and artefacts is in many instances in its infancy, though chemists and biologists find that notion debatable. The important bridge for nanoartifacts is between the molecular scale and the smallscale end of nanotechnological experiment and nanoengineering. Forest has suggested a unifying role for mathematics in effecting this bridge. The emphasis on scientific computing as the front line to much of science is important for nanoscience.

The business of nanoartifacts lies in their creation. Two strands emerge though there is a considerable overlap between the two. First, there is atomic and molecular-scale fabrication, which has become possible through the advent of the ATM, STM and similar instruments. Translation of these microscopies into production equip-ment capable of manufacturing new materials is now a matter for concern. For this to occur would not be un-usual; many production processes have started out from laboratory instruments.

The second strand concerns understanding the cell; it involves genomics, proteomics and other aspects of cell biology. The problems of understanding here are immense. In genomics the field is already breaking down into specialisms that have difficulty communicating with one another, while protein chemistry is turning out to be every bit as complex and difficult as unravelling genetic codes. Understanding the cell is now of vital interest in medicine as new forms of therapy focus on cell repair and direct delivery of therapeutic agents into the cell in a highly controlled way. The role that mathematics and simulation can play in understanding the cell is now firmly on the nanoscience agenda and is already well established in molecular design.

In the immediate future the business of nanoscience and nanotechnology and engineering are likely to be driven by the current desire to extend the life of Moore’s Law beyond its currently believed life of 10 years. Other nanoartifacts are likely to support the development of very high-density data storage systems, perhaps incorporating some entirely new notions of data storage, mobility and access. Throughout, two of the tenets of nanoartifact design need to be parsimony and precaution as both should lead to the minimisation of the energy needed for their creation while the latter is essential if litigation is to be avoided under product liability or some other legal process. In the manufacturing field the precise design and use of catalysts and their support systems is bound to feature strongly among nanoartifacts if only because they are already so widely used. Throughout nanometrology must underpin the understanding of nano-phenomena, the design of nanoartifacts, the control of their production processes and product quality assurance.

What influences may nanoartifacts have on industry and business? Here the concern has to be for how compa-nies and perhaps whole industries may be reshaped. At present the nano-community pays little attention to the matter of the desirability of nanoartifacts, the excitement of the possibilities nanoscience and the realities, and potential feasibilities of nanotechnology and engineering are ‘enough to be going on with.’ However, this is not a wise or sustainable position. Awareness in the wider world is already creating hyperbole, which is not restricted to the popular media but is also present in the scientific community, excitement and suspicion, and, in some cases, outright opposition to what is thought to be likely to happen in the near future.

It has long been apparent that nanoartifacts could create feasible changes to production plant capable of reshap-ing companies and possibly whole industrial sectors. One way of thinking about industries as a whole was developed by an EIRMA working group; their framework split industries into two groups identified as ‘Assembly’ and ‘Whole product’. The EIRMA group concluded that their division of industries had a degree of artificiality and that the two overlapped fuzzily. Nanoartifacts have the capability to pervade both groups. With nanoartifacts partly in mind, the ERIMA group also concluded that there would be an increasing role for small to medium sized specialist ‘boutique’ companies with unique skills that could, with proper licensing arrangements, be sources of technology for larger companies. Some companies of this kind were members of the EIRMA group and since then many more have been formed including most recently a linkage between Antisoma and Roche.

The potential pervasiveness of nanoscience, technology and engineering has already begun to spawn companies with unique approaches to smallscale production processes. These may well have a serious potential to evolve into smallscale high volume production processes that may lead toward the long anticipated ‘table top’ production plant for high value nanobased artefacts. Avantium, and its network of partners, is an example of where this kind of development has started and from where it might spread. The capital cost of these ‘table top’ factories is unlikely to be high, with the possibility of altering the fixed capital structure of companies in the fields where these facilities can be used. In contrast modern IC production facilities currently cost in the region of $1 billion; redevelopment of them to incorporate nanometre scale devices could easily mean that even the largest IC makers will need to collaborate to share the costs.

In the trio of questions:

Desirability is usually the last rather then the first question to be asked. There continues to be a belief, at least in technological quarters, in the infinite plasticity of human beings toward new artefacts, a view that is now clearly being rejected. What should companies do to prepare for the arrival of nanoartifacts? First, to recognise that they are already here and in very significant quantities particularly in chemistry and biology. Second, learn the language of the nano-world, and particularly of systems integration at the nanoscale. Third, develop interdisci-plinary training plans; do not rely on universities, professional societies or other formal institutions to provide a stream of people trained in ‘nanotechnology.’ Fourth, be prepared to experiment with alliances, joint ventures and the like with boutique style companies and other organisations that have special expertise in the creation of nanoartifacts whether that be in:

 

Fifth, to appreciate the potential role that nanoartifacts may play in sustainable development.