The tiny, tiny future of nanotech

You might think that humans are pretty smart. We build spaceships. We have Game of Thrones and Netflix. But if you want a real King Canute moment, a look at an ant will set you straight. For all our smarts, we’re currently very bad at making tiny, complex things. Even ignoring the biochemistry, there’s currently no way we could build anything as intricate as an ant directly.

The emerging discipline of nanotechnology is how we’ll begin to address this gap in our collective skill set. It’s going to be a revolution in how we relate to the world around us – and it could be as big a deal as the onset of industrial chemistry in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Today, I’ll be interviewing Dr Steven Hausman – president of Hausman Technology Presentations and Consulting. He’s going to help us get to the bottom of the investment opportunities presented by this exciting and growing field.

AL: Hi Steven. Can you start off by telling me a bit about Hausman Technology Presentations?

SH: Great to speak with you Andrew, and thanks for this opportunity. Hausman Technology Presentations, which I typically call HausmanTech, is a company I formed that focuses on providing information about many aspects of emerging technologies, including: nanotechnology; robotics; 3D printing; artificial limbs and organs; medical technologies; and much more. I do this by giving keynote presentations at meetings, providing tutorials to small groups and by writing articles.

AL: Could you tell me what nanotechnology is, in simple terms?

SH: Certainly. Nanotechnology is the ability to work with materials in the 1 to 100-nanometre range. A nanometre is a billionth of a metre. A sheet of paper, for example, is about 100,000 nanometres thick; a human hair is about 80,000 nanometres in diameter. Your fingernail grows about a nanometre a second.

AL: I’ll remember the fingernail one! How did this field begin?

SH: A physicist named Richard Feynman presented a talk in 1959 called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” where he talked about the possibility of scientists being able to control and manipulate individual atoms and molecules. This was well before the term “nanotechnology” was actually coined. The term was first used in 1974 by Professor Norio Taniguchi in Japan and was applied to computer circuitry. But the original paper got people to think about how molecular-scale structures could be fabricated – and that was a concept that had not even been considered until that time. In 1986 Eric Drexler wrote a book entitled Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology where he proposed a nanoscale “assembler” which could not only create many items but could also produce a copy of itself. That is what we currently call a nanomachine.

AL: What sort of progress has there been since that time? Are there any commercial products on the market now that contain nanotechnology-related materials?

SH: At this point there are many – with more being added each day in many different categories. Let me talk about a couple. There are products, such as bandages, that incorporate an antibacterial coating of nanocrystalline silver. There is also at least one cosmetic on the market using nanotechnology that is designed to regenerate skin cells. Nanoscale films on surfaces like eyeglasses and windows can make them water-repellant, non-fogging and scratch resistant. Nanostructured ceramic coatings can make machine parts more resistant to wear. Unfortunately, the word nanotechnology seems to be very appealing to advertisers – so there are many products on the market that use the term, but have not substantiated how it is actually incorporated.

AL: Does that mean, in your opinion, that we should be sceptical about products that purport to be nanotechnology-based?

SH: With regard to consumer products on store shelves, yes, to a certain extent. We have to make sure that the manufacturer can document any claims.

AL: What sort of uses will nanotechnology have in the future?

SH: It’s not hyperbole to suggest that we are already well underway with a nanotechnology revolution. This will transform most aspects of our lives in the coming decades. Nanotechnology is already successfully being used to treat certain cancers. There are clinical trials underway that use nanoparticles to deliver drugs directly to tumours, and release them in a controlled fashion. Carbon nanotubes are being used to develop scanning methods to detect very small tumours. Nanoparticles are being used to deliver an agent that shuts down a key enzyme in cancer cells. IBM has recently launched a “lab-on-a-chip” technology programme to detect cancer. This latter device will function like a home pregnancy test – where a urine sample can be tested to detect biomarkers of cancer.

I mentioned nanomachines earlier, and researchers in the Netherlands have developed microrobots whose movement can be controlled by very weak magnetic fields. These can be used in targeted medical therapies. Engineers at Drexel University in Philadelphia have devised a method to utilise electric fields to allow bacteria-powered robots to navigate in their environment. Potential uses include delivering medication; building microstructures; and even manipulating stem cells, to change how they develop.

There has also been a lot of news recently about food product recalls due to contamination. In the near future, nanosensors will be built into food containers and packaging – to detect spoiled food, or food contaminated by bacteria or pesticides.

AL: How might nanotech become important in solar power?

SH: This is a particularly exciting development. The breakthrough is being able to manufacture a device called the “3D rectenna” at nanoscale. This can convert light into electricity, but it works in a fundamentally different way to a conventional solar panel. The term “rectenna” is a word made up of two words: antenna and rectifier (diode). The device is able to convert light of varying wavelengths to direct current (DC). Light falling onto the antenna induces the electrons to move back and forth. This would normally result in the production of alternating current (AC) in the antenna circuit. The rectifier portion of the device changes this into DC that can be used to power an external load. At the moment the efficiency of the research version of this device is only 1% – but it can theoretically reach 90%. Since these devices are cheap to construct, they could potentially displace conventional solar cells in time. Rectannas have previously been used to convert microwaves to electricity. Microwaves have a much longer wavelength than visible light, so the ability to convert light to electricity using an optical rectenna is based on the ability to make them very small.

AL: Moving on to healthtech, could you mention some firms that are doing research on nanoparticle drug delivery?

SH: You may be surprised by how many companies are involved with this sort of research. For example, Cytimmune has developed a “Trojan Horse”. Their nanoparticles deliver a payload which destroys tumours. It does this by attacking blood vessel architecture within the tumour, and it can also contain specific anti-tumour agents to kill the cancer cells.

Tarveda Therapeutics creates nanoparticles that can penetrate into tumours to deliver anti-cancer drugs. Their products are targeted to neuroendocrine cancers, including small cell lung cancer.

Nanobiotix has nanoparticles that target tumour cells. When irradiated by X-rays, they produce electrons that cause localised destruction of the tumour cells. These are being tested for use in head and neck cancers, especially in frail and elderly patients.

Nanospectra use nanoparticles (called AuroShells) that are constructed of a thin layer of gold surrounding a silica core. The thickness of the gold determines the wavelength of light that the particle will absorb. For example, a solid gold nanoparticle will absorb green light, but a particle with only a gold shell will absorb in the near infrared. Near infrared, although invisible to the eye, will penetrate human tissue. If the gold particles are concentrated in tumours and then irradiated by near infrared, they heat up and kill the cancerous tissue by what is called “heat ablation”. This really means that the tumour has been cooked to death.

AL: Finally – what was your motivation to form your own company?

SH: Well, I started out as a research scientist doing work in immunology and then joined the US federal government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is probably the largest funding source of biomedical research in the world, and I was initially doing research in aging. I had always been fascinated with administrative aspects of science, and switched from the research side of the NIH to become director of a nation-wide programme of arthritis centres. Eventually I worked my way up to become deputy director of an institute and had that position for 17 years. I had a number of special assignments that involved computer and other technology.

During my time at NIH, I gave many presentations. So when I decided to retire from the federal government, the obvious choice for my next career was to combine my interest in speaking with a consulting practice. That was ten years ago and I have never regretted my decision.

I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on this. How will nanotechnology show up in our lives first? And can you think of other ways this new technology can be used? Please do write in with your views – [email protected].


Andrew Lockley
Exponential Investor

Category: Technology

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