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Nanotechnology – A Reality or Illusion?

Ranjani Saigal, Anoop Kumar and Anil Saigal

Nanotechnology has been hailed as the new frontier in technology. Various companies have invested over a billion dollars in R&D. But is Nanotechnology a reality? TiE-Boston's final event for the year focused on this much-hyped technology and the business opportunity surrounding it. The event cleared a few cobwebs for the uninitiated. The event was held on Monday Nov 25, 2002 at the Burlington Marriott in Burlington, MA.

In what many attendees hailed as the best event of the year, a panel discussion by four outstanding panelists unraveled the mysteries of Nanotechnology. Ashok Bogani, founder charter member introduced the panelists: Glen Falco, Partner, Bessemer Venture Partners; Dr. Cristoph Westpal, General Partner, Polaris Venture Partners; Dr. John Fan, CEO, Kopin Corporation and Dr. Raj Mohanty, Professor, Boston University.

The discussion began with a technical presentation that outlined the details of the technology. "When we move into the realm of Nanotechnology, traditional laws of physics do not apply," said Prof. Raj Mohanty a panelist who is a Professor of Physics at Boston University. "Most people do not get a feel for what a nanoscale device is," said Mohanty. "Even the concept of a nanometer is not familiar to many. The size of a DNA molecule is approximately a nanometer, a human hair about 60,000 nanometers and the height of a average human being is 2 billion nanometers," said Mohanty.

Nanotechnology is not yet a commercial reality. Nanotechnology devices or NEMS (Nano Electro Mecahnical Systems) are an extension of MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Sytems). NEMS and MEMS have great potential in the areas of biosensors, optical switches, micromirrors, routers and quantum computers. The problem of heat removal is one of the major limitations in moving from the realm of MEMS to NEMS and Nanotechnology. Typical micro devices generate heat that is close to the heat generated by a hot plate while nano-devices generate heat approaching those of nuclear reactor or a rocket nozzle on a per unit volume basis.

Fabrication of these devices also continues to be a challenge. "Fabrication of one- dimensional devices is already a reality. Two-dimensional products fabricated using Lithography should be available in the near future. But fabrication of complex three-dimensional devices is still an unresolved challenge" says John Fan, President and CEO of Kopin Corporation, which manufactures advanced material products.

After giving an in depth understanding of the technology, the panel discussions moved to practical applications of the technology. According to the panelists most of the current products are micro devices. "A good example of a successful application of this technology is solid state lighting which we hope will replace all fluorescent lighting in about ten years," said John Fan.

Cristoph Westpal gave an overiew of a Nanotechnology company, Nanosys funded by Polaris Ventures. Nanosys is working on using nanoceramic wires to produce field emission display filters, nano memories and nano LEDS with an ultimate goal to produce the Nanoprocessor in the distant future. This will fulfill the dream of creating devices powered by extremely high-speed processors.

So is Nanotechnology really the new frontier? The conclusion reached by the panel was that Nanotechnology is certainly here. But there are major obstacles to be overcome. Manufacturing continues to be a challenge. We need significant advances in Physics, Chemistry and Engineering understanding to gain new strides in this field.

The organizers of the event should be credited for the format of the panel discussion, which included a detailed overview of the technology, practical and commercial applications followed by business and funding opportunities.

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