For a science that's about manipulating substances at the molecular level, nanotechnology is starting to bring big profits to many consumer product makers. Already, nanoscience has produced stain- and wrinkle-resistant clothing, self-cleaning windows, glare-reducing and fog-resistant
coatings for eyeglasses and windshields, dramatically increased computer memory, better sports equipment, improved cosmetics and sunscreens, and lighter, stronger auto components.
What's next? More user-friendly cell phones, longer-lasting batteries, lighter car tires that retain air longer, better imaging techniques for diagnosing disease, drugs more precisely targeted to limit side effects, faster consumer electronics, perhaps even cheaper beer made with "nano yeast," experts say.
Fortune 500 companies from General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co. and IBM to Motorola, Sony, DuPont and 3M are making big investments in nanotechnology to improve medicine, computer components, electronic toys, microelectronics, photovoltaic systems, cosmetics and flat-panel displays for TV and video screens. Some products are already on store shelves.
But unlike the nanotechnology done in "clean room" labs, where devices are sometimes assembled atom by atom under electron microscopes, manufacturers basically use the principles of chemistry, aided by careful control of conditions such as temperature and pressure, to make molecules assemble themselves precisely, yet economically, with desired attributes.
"This is something with huge revenue potential," predicted Bishop, who heads nanotechnology research at Bell Labs. Estimates of nanotechnology's financial impact range from about $20 billion to $50 billion in revenues today, jumping to as much as $1 trillion by 2010 and more than $2 trillion by 2015.
"There are really a lot of products out there. People just have a low awareness of them," said Matthew Nordan, vice president of research at Lux.
Most nanotechnology applications are not seen to pose a risk, but that is being carefully studied by federal, academic and industrial researchers, Teague said. Nanotechnology began showing up in consumer products, notably cosmetics and sunscreens about 10 years ago, McNeely said. But it technically dates to decades before. For example, catalytic converters, put on cars since the 1970s, use platinum-rhodium particles to convert pollutants into safe gases.
Fast-forward a few decades, and now nanoparticles are in a broad range of consumer products, from food packaging to sporting goods.
In 2002, Wilson came out with "Double Core" tennis balls, now the top-selling balls in Europe. Inside is an ultrathin coating of a clay composite material, made by InMat to make balls retain air better, giving a more consistent bounce and longer life, said company president Harris Goldberg.
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