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Nanotechnology: Opportunities for Photonics

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2002
Brent D. Johnson

In his keynote address at the NanoTech Venture Fair in La Jolla, Calif., in September, F. Mark Modzelewski, founder and executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance in New York City, predicted that nanotechnology would add $1 trillion to the economy in the next 15 to 20 years. He believes that the integration of biology and electronics will be the most significant development in the field.

At the event, potential investors viewed some of the most progressive commercial ventures in the field of nanoscience, giving them a glimpse of the nanoworld that is to come.

An example of the predicted fusion of biology and technology is Nanospectra Biosciences Inc. of Houston, which has been developing noninvasive cancer therapies based on its photonic Nanoshells. The company is looking for funding for the development of therapeutic applications, such as targeting cancer cells for thermal ablation with the assistance of a laser.

Another example is California Molecular Electronics Corp. of San Jose, which is developing Chiropticene, its molecular switch that, with the application of light, moves back and forth between one stable state and another. Optical routers, large-scale displays and ultradense molecular memory are some of the near-term applications of the material. A Chiropticene memory device with terabyte capability could become available by 2004.

Emboldened by the US government's National Nanotechnology Initiative, which plans to increase its nanotechnology research and development funding by 17 percent to $710 million for 2003, many investors have taken tentative steps toward endorsing the technology, despite the lackluster performance of technology stocks over the past year.

During nanotechnology's early years, photonics will profit most from the systems needed to image nanodevices, Modzelewski said. He mentioned the efforts of Veeco Instruments of Plainview, N.Y., and PerkinElmer Analytical Instruments of Shelton, Conn., in this direction.

David Aslin, a partner at London-based venture capitalist firm 3i Group plc, later agreed during a panel discussion on investor perspectives of nanotechnology. He said that scanning probe microscopes and tools that manipulate devices at the nanometer scale will provide the most significant opportunities and that the market for atomic force microscopes alone is $200 million to $300 million per year.

Modzelewski warned, however, that investors still have some concerns that the technology won't work or that a market for it will fail to materialize. And many people still appear confused about the technology.

This lack of understanding has led to proposed moratoriums sponsored by environmental organizations, such as the ETC group of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, which fear the interaction of nanomaterials with living organisms. All participants on the panel agreed that educating the public about nanotechnology is critical so as to prevent negative connotations of the field stemming from ignorance.

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