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"Nanotechnology is just at the beginning,"

Mihail C. Roco (left), National Science Foundation's senior advisor for nanotechnology, joins David Williams, vice provost for research, Lehigh University.

By Christian Berg
Of The Morning Call

From The Morning Call -- March 19, 2003

Everybody onload="window.location = ''"'s looking for the next big thing in technology but breakthroughs will probably be much smaller than expected, a top federal science official said Tuesday. So small, in fact, that you'll need an electron microscope to see them.

Mihail C. Roco is the National Science Foundation's senior adviser for nanotechnology, a new field that creates high-tech devices at the atomic and molecular levels. Roco was the guest speaker at the Lehigh Valley Technology Network's breakfast meeting at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, where he told local business leaders that nanotechnology will play a key role in everything from diagnosing cancer to feeding the world.

''Nanotechnology is just at the beginning,'' Roco said during his speech at Lehigh's Mountaintop Campus. Nanotechnology didn't exist a decade ago, but Roco believes society will feel its impact within five years. And by 2015, it will be a $1 trillion business, according to a National Science Foundation forecast. Nanotechnology is named after the nanometer, a unit of measure equal to one billionth of a meter. Most nanotech products measure no larger than 100 nanometers.

Nanotechnology is already being applied to some consumer products.
Development of a super-small zinc compound has led to the introduction of sunscreen lotion that goes on clear and protects skin better than equal amounts of traditional white lotion. And some new tennis racquets have ''nanotubes'' molded into their frames, greatly increasing the amount of energy they absorb. Continued nanotech development opens up huge new opportunities, Roco said. For example, nanotechnology has led to the development of microscopic materials that are assisting doctors in cancer detection and drug delivery. Someday, researchers may design molecule-sized sensors that can rebuild tissue or monitor the activity of a single cell. Nanotechnology also has applications in agriculture, energy conservation, water treatment, aerospace, defense and other areas.

The federal government is so confident in nanotechnology's potential that it has put Roco in charge of its National Nanotechnology Initiative. The 7-year-old program, which will receive $700 million in federal funding this year, serves as a catalyst for nanotech research and education. The initiative is supported by the U.S. departments of Energy, Environmental Protection, Agriculture and Defense, as well as the National Institutes of Health and NASA. The initiative also works with 22 regional nanotechnology alliances nationwide. One of them is The Nanotechnology Institute in Philadelphia, which was organized by the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania. By supporting research and education, the government hopes to help create a wide base of knowledge and turn ideas into commercial products.

Nanotechnology research is being conducted locally by organizations such as Air Products and Chemicals of Trexlertown and Lehigh. Jeff DePinto, Air Products' business development manager, said the company created a nanotechnology strategy more than a year ago. Air Products believes new molecules created with nanotechnology could revolutionize the gases and chemicals it provides for the electronics, health care and other industries.At Lehigh, Vice Provost for Research David Williams said researchers are combining nanotechnology with the school's engineering strength. For example, a Lehigh professor recently developed tiny metal particles that help clean contaminated soil and ground water. The microscopic metal particles are magnetized and introduced into water that flows through contaminated soil. The small particles flow easily through the soil, picking up PCBs and other pollutants. After the particles pass through the soil, magnets are used to collect them, picking up hazardous pollutants in the process. Williams said the particles are being field tested at EPA Superfund sites in New Jersey and could soon be used at polluted areas nationwide. ''We do some pretty fundamental here,'' Williams said. ''But in the end, we've got our eyes set on what we're going to do with it.'


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