A misconception that surrounded nanotech 15 years ago when it was the buzzword, was that
it was going to be its own industry specialising in creating the likes of tiny nanorobots that programme and build other tiny nanorobots. But that’s not necessarily what nanotechnology is. Though a specific definition is not agreed upon, the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) defines nanotechnology as the “manipulation of matter with at least one-dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometres (nm)”. To put in perspective the unbelievably small size of a nanometre, the width of a human hair is about 50,000-100,000nm wide.
Nanotech, what is it?
At first glance, one might think that this definition would limit nanotechnology to a very specific field, but the reality is just the opposite. You might not know it, but nanotechnology products are presently available in our everyday lives at an abundance be it in bandages, soaps, clothes, or our electronics where they provide more energy-efficient displays and greater processing capabilities. More examples can be seen in the picture below. However, we are just scratching the surface of what is possible with nanotechnology and a lot of research and investment is going into a variety of fields ranging from medicine to electronic engineering to food and food packaging. Nanotechnology’s importance thus comes from its wide range of benefits be it saving lives, providing the convenience of thinner, more portable gadgets, or helping the environment through thinner packaging.
Why is it important?
The U.S. government alone has spent over $25bn on funding the NNI for the purposes of research and development of nanotechnology-activities of over 20 departments and agencies. The funding for 2020 stands at $1.4bn. This figure does not include the money spent by large companies on nanotech R&D such as healthcare or electronics giants, though the European Commission predicted that in 2015 global government and corporate funding could have been as large as $250bn, growing from an estimated $67bn in 2010.
What does the market look like?
The wide range of products that fall within nanotechnology can often make market sizing a difficult task and recent numbers can often be difficult to find based on what they measure. For example, a company producing bandages may be working with nanotechnology and their products may contribute to nanotechnology market size in some researchers’ eyes, but the lack of investment and active research would discount them as other researchers see it. As an example, iGATE Research estimated in their Global Nanotechnology Market report that the global market size would reach $125bn by 2024 while the European Commission had suggested a number closer to $1tn for a similar time period. What is somewhat agreed upon, however, is the three largest players within nanotech, with iGATE identifying these as (from largest to smallest) electronics, energy and biomedicine which, all together, make up 70% of the market size.
The healthcare industry is likely to see the largest growth in nanotechnology investments going forward, with further active research continuing over the upcoming decade. As an example, Pfizer is working with nanoparticles to find new methods of targeting cancerous tumours more precisely so that cancer treatments such as chemotherapy can be delivered with less side effects and without damaging other tissues. In fact, earlier research has been successful in delivering chemotherapy drugs to specific cancerous an animal model. Replicating this process within humans is what companies like Pfizer are working towards.
Meanwhile, tech and electronics companies are spearheading patents within nanotech in 2019 with very few other companies seen in the top 20. In fact, the first non-electronics/tech company seen in the list (aside from universities and governments) is Saudi Aramco, holding 13th place for holding 135 of the nanotech patents issued by USPTO in 2019.
While not appearing on the aforementioned list, LG has also been working extensively with nanotechnology, though in a different way from other electronics competitors. The electronic giant has developed a rollable TV using a carbon nanomaterial called graphene. The OLED TV is stored in a simple-looking base that can blend into the room, making it so that the TV is not the focal point of the living room. Instead, when you would switch on the TV, the top of the base opens up and out rolls the screen, standing upright. Further research on graphene could provide even more promising results in electronics and other fields as its mechanical strength, electrical and optical properties give it a lot of potential for commercial use and scientific applications.
What opportunities does nanotech present?
Nanotechnology creates a lot of business opportunities and has the potential to impact many sectors significantly. Energy businesses may particularly want to watch out as the same technology that makes LG’s TV thin and rollable has the potential to create thinner, easier to place solar panels whilst making them more efficient at generating electricity. Processor chip manufacturers look back to nanotech not to produce smaller chips but to create smaller transistors to increase processing speed. If they are to succeed, some estimate that we will see our computers become 10 times as fast, opening doors for heavier computational uses and further digitization.
What are the challenges that come due to the advent of nanotech?
However, despite all the research and excitement that had surrounded the field since 2001, there is very little that we know about nanotechnology and nanoparticles which will impact how we move ahead in this decade. For example, we know very little about the environmental impact of producing or disposing of nanomaterials and particles and more research is needed to gauge this. Issues have also been raised about the health and safety risks of working with nanotechnology which has dampened growth to some extent. The largest obstacle for nanotechnology advancements may also be their best trait, namely their tiny size. The incredibly small scale of nanoparticles makes them very difficult to work with and unstable at times, leading to higher costs and risk before products are marketable, making them highly unaffordable at times and difficult to commercialise. As an example, LG’s 65” rollable TV could cost $60,000 when it is released, while the most expensive TV of the same size come at around the $5,000-$6,000 mark.
Whether this is the decade which will see significant developments within nanotech which will usher in cheap nanotech products remains to be seen but we believe it to be a decade that will bring forth significant growth in the nanotech commercial and research space. This will be largely due to advancements in technology in fields such as artificial intelligence; increased funding and support from governments; and our growing preference for smaller devices and gadgets.