Are we ready for the nanotechnology revolution?

Why businesses should care about tiny tech

In the 1950s, physicist Richard Feynman suggested that more could be learned about materials by reducing them to their smallest possible form. This idea laid the foundations for nanotechnology – the study of matter at an atomic or molecular level. Almost 70 years down the line, however, and the field is still in the developmental stages. Nonetheless, the disruptive potential of nanotechnology is so vast that it’s well worth being aware of the technology’s trajectory. The research area is now a broad umbrella term for numerous different branches and projects. But what does it mean for businesses, and what are the obstacles to adoption?

Mini miracles

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, which is the equivalent of comparing a marble to planet earth. The point of working at such a small scale is to explore the properties of materials at the most fundamental level. As well as improving resources that are already available, nanotechnology is expected to create totally new products, processes and services. In the energy sector, nanomaterials are helping to validate renewable power as a legitimate replacement for fossil fuels. Nanomaterials are becoming incredibly important as resources that were once taken for granted begin to run out, or are shown to be fundamentally flawed.

Making things better by making them smaller is a familiar concept to any computing enthusiast through Moore’s Law. Nanochips, for example, theoretically offer the same processing power as 10 supercomputers for the price of a fancy watch.

Another industry in which nanotechnology appears to have particular potential is healthcare. Medical scientists have already discovered that nanorockets offer a precise drug delivery method, and Durham University researchers have even sent nanorobots to successfully destroy cancer cells.

Outside of healthcare, nanotechnology has a role to play in energy, construction, materials science, manufacturing, and in enabling the collection of Big Data. The data age requires mass, secure information storage, which is a daunting task. In keeping with most nanotechnological advances, a research team from the University of Southampton has developed a ‘memristor’ that can store multiple memory states.

Academic institutions certainly appear to back nanotech, but the success of these prospective use cases ultimately relies on corporate and venture capitalist support. Businesses may have been aware of nanotechnology for a number of years, but we’ve yet to see any big company make a public bid for nanotech superiority. As the problems it hopes to solve become more pressing – namely energy storage, information storage and the provision of new materials – perhaps this will change.

More than just a little disruptive. . .

As if saving the lives of cancer patients wasn’t enough, nanotechnology will have an unprecedented impact on the way almost everything is made. Nanomaterials could completely change manufacturing, while nanorobotics may lead to breakthroughs in automation. Supercharging productivity could create a new global economy, intensifying competition on both intranational and international levels. Nanobots, which can be programmed to manipulate and monitor atomic structures, are especially intriguing. Grey Goo theories aside, these little bots could collect real time data from essentially any process. But with so many possible uses and seemingly miraculous applications, it will be difficult for the technology to avoid death by hype. Other challenges, particularly for SMEs, include resource availability, regulatory uncertainty, and a lack of specialist knowledge. An extensive OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) report found that almost half of businesses planned to look abroad to recruit necessary personnel. Intellectual property disputes could also arise as companies file for patents.

You don’t need a microscope to see that nanotechnology is preceded by a formidable reputation. To date, though, even the most promising use cases are largely theoretical or confined to research labs. Despite this, developments should be tracked carefully by businesses – regardless of which industry they belong to. This is particularly important in light of the ongoing trend of convergence. A technology that impacts energy, for example, is also likely to disrupt transportation. The time to prepare for the nanotech revolution is now, while theory still rules practice. It’s true that early adopters have to contend with accentuated risk, but they are often the ones who make the biggest business gains. Given nanotechnology’s industry wide potential, it’s a chance worth taking.

How could nanotechnology impact your business? Could we see the emergence of a nano economy? Can the field of nanotechnology survive the hype and meet its own ambitious expectations? Share your thoughts.