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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the October 16, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Small (& Brave) New World of Nanotechnology
When Anton von Leeuwenhoek made his first microscope,
he was overcome with delight at the sight of the bacteria in his own
saliva, the "wee beasties" as he called them. More than 300
years later, scientists are studying the world on a much smaller scale,
a nano scale.
These scientists are manipulating individual atoms and molecules,
though it is hard to comprehend how. A nanometer is a billionth of
a meter. Think of the difference between a strand of human hair and
the width of a redwood tree. Or ponder the fact that a nanometer is
to a meter as three millimeters are to the distance between New York
and San Francisco.
Nanotechnology could have an unprecedented effect on a very wide variety
of industries, and as "the next new thing" after the Internet
it is attracting a great deal of media and investor attention. "At
the most basic social level, nanoscale engineering is going to be
responsible for massive changes in the way we live, the way we interact
with one another and our environment, and the things we are capable
of doing," predicts Brian Lundquist, publisher of the trade magazine
Nanotechnology Now (www.nanotech-now.com).
In all the media flurry Princeton is getting its due. Of 15 companies
featured last month in Time magazine, three — NanoOpto, Hydrocarbon
Technologies, and Inmat — were from central New Jersey. Inmat’s
Harris Goldberg will speak on a panel at the New Jersey Technology
Council’s nanotechnology update on Monday, October 21, at 4 p.m. at
Lucent Technologies, 600 Mountain Avenue, in Murray Hill. Cost: $40.
A half dozen nanotechnology-based companies have sprouted up here,
and many of the companies that were working on a microscopic-scale
project can now claim the nano-size label. Two of the new firms —
NanoOptics and Nanonex — are based on the work of Princeton University’s
Stephen Chou and both have products to sell. Two of the existing firms
— Hydrocarbon Technologies on New York Avenue in Trenton and Inmat
in Hillsborough — have introduced nano-based products. Sarnoff
Corporation is dedicating some resources to this field, and Rutgers
has 18 researchers working on nearly a dozen different nano topics.
Meanwhile well-established firms are taking the opportunity to re-emphasize
their nano-scale discoveries.
Nano-based companies in the electronics field can now
tap the resources of Lucent Technologies. That beleaguered company
has been able to keep the wolf from its nanolaboratory’s door by opening
the 27-year-old lab to the general public. It has received $4 million
from the federal and state governments to make its fabulous Murray
Hill laboratory available to outsiders (see page 47). Another government
funded center for nanotechnology, Picatinny Arsenal, is getting money
from the government for joint projects with Stevens Institute and
the New Jersey Institute of Technology (page 44). New Jersey hopes
that these funds may help create a "Nano Valley."
Nanotechnology used to mean "anything smaller than microtechnology,"
but it can also represent a process of building — molecule by
molecule — either very advanced nanoscale machines and computers
or ordinary size objects using very small machines called assemblers.
Once the universal assembler and the nanocomputer have been invented,
futurists like Eric Drexler (author of the 1986 book "Engine of
Creation") say computer speed will increase by a factor of a billion
and computer size will decrease by a factor of a billion. Some go
so far as to predict that, fully deployed, not only will nanotechnology
eliminate manufacturing pollution, but it will also eliminate hunger,
poverty, homelessness, and want. But it could also create the rather
scary possibility of "nanobots" and self-replicating "nanogoo."
Theoretically anything can be self replicating at no cost — anything
from houses to nano-scale robots. Good robots could conquer and discard
cancer cells. Bad robots? Possibilities are limited by your own nightmares.
Far less scary outcomes are being worked on by Princeton area companies.
If you go to any nanotech venture conferences, almost
all CEOs talk about having a product three years from now. "We
have products now," says Chou, as he shows off his nanolaboratory
in Princeton University’s Engineering Quadrangle. His first firm,
NanoOpto, is designing and making components for optical networking
with a process that is biologically clean and can also be applied
to data storage and other fields. His second, Nanonex, is making the
machines that NanoOpto and other companies can use for their nano
"Research could lead to surprising discoveries," says Chou.
As he talks about challenging established thought, he uses a favorite
expression, "conventional theories may no longer apply," and
he raises his arms high and wide in enthusiasm.
For computer chips, Chou’s methods could increase the density of transistors
on silicon chips by 100-fold and also streamline production. These
microstructures are made now with a physical or a chemical approach,
in a process that takes 10 to 20 minutes per chip. Chou’s mechanical
approach takes a quarter of a millionth per second and represents
a paradigm shift in manufacturing.
"We use a `cooky cutter’ to form the shape of the formable material,"
says Chou. "We create a pattern, fix it, then take the cooky cutter
out." Think of how a waffle iron is immersed in liquid batter.
When the liquid gets hard, the waffle iron is removed, leaving the
formed batter. "To make it hard, we use either heat or light or
both," says Chou. The liquid used is a specially made polymer
developed by his group.
The "waffle iron" or "cooky cutter" can make either
periodic patterns or arbitrary patterns. To make the master copy,
very slow electron beam lithography is used, and the master copy can
easily be replicated into "daughter molds" for manufacturing.
"One copy takes 10 seconds, and 10 molds can make 10,000 copies,"
Chou says. Nanonex commercializes the machine that does this.
Chou’s early entry into this field helped him figure out which products
could be made quickly and would be attractive to clients. "It
was so new when I began that people thought it was rather like fiction,"
His first astute decision, when he was a student in China, was to
major in engineering. "I saw what the Cultural Revolution did
to liberal arts studies," says Chou, "and I chose a subject
that had hard and fast standards that could not depend on what the
government wants. And I thought that countries must always need roads,
so I chose engineering. I started very young liking to do things with
my hands, and nanotechnology allows me to build things."
He graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986, then
went to Stanford and to the University of Minnesota. In 1996 he made
a breakthrough, creating the world’s smallest transistor, which requires
the current of only one electron. The following year he was lured
to Princeton with the promise of a $1 million lab, to which he brought
his own equipment, $10 million worth, paid for by federal grants.
His Nanostructure Laboratory has 14 graduate students and six post
docs, and is one of the most well populated labs at Princeton.
Both of Chou’s parents were academics who survived the Cultural Revolution.
His father taught logic and philosophy (particularly Hegel) and his
mother taught English literature and does translation. One younger
brother is an engineer at Lucent, and the other works in California,
while his sister is a physician. Chou’s wife is also a physician practicing
part time in Hillsborough, and they have a two-year-old daughter.
"My wife has been supportive so I can fulfill my dream," he
says. To accomplish both academic and corporate duties requires long
hours, from 7 or 8 a.m. to midnight or after, with just a break for
dinner, seven days a week, plus much travel. He is frequently asked
to talk on the commercialization of technology, and last week, for
instance, he spoke in Germany, Taipei, and California.
"The way my parents brought me up had a very important effect,"
says Chou. "My parents taught me to be persistent and not be easily
turned back by difficulties. I remember my father always emphasized
that the short run guy gets all the honors but, in the long run, the
person doing the valuable work will be appreciated more."
Though Chou’s office is next to that of Nobel Prize-winner Daniel
Tsui, he disavows any ambitions to be awarded coveted prizes. First
of all, he points out, his field of engineering is not covered by
the Nobel committee. "Instead I hope that, after many years, people
will say this is very significant work. I am trying to identify the
important areas and directions in my field and to explore them."
"One important part of my job that I enjoy is to train someone
to be a professional and teach them things that have lasting value
in their life. I don’t expect to get any reward for that."
NanoOpto is the first of Steven Chou’s companies. For
the optical components business, NanoOpto has been able to design,
manufacture, and scale optical components, using commercially viable
nanoimprint lithography. Only 15 months after its initial funding,
it has achieved a revenue status. "That is extremely rare if not
unheard of especially in the communication space," says CEO Barry
"Not only have we figured out a revolutionary way to design optical
components but we are also manufacturing," says Weinbaum. "Most
of the companies either have vestiges of a manufacturing process or
research. I am hard pressed to think of one that has both." His
plant went online in March. Waveplate "optical building blocks"
are the latest products that come from NanoOpto’s modular nano-optic
Weinbaum went to Union College in Schenectady, New York, Class of
1980, and has a master’s degree in computer science. His first job
at AT&T migrated to Lucent. He was recruited from Lucent to NanoOpto
by co-founders Chou and Howard Lee, a former vice president at Sun
who ran Apple’s Macintosh division.
NanoOpto ranks 12th in the Venture Reporter’s list of top-funded nanocompanies
in the country. After the first round of funding, $20 million had
been raised from such venture firms as Morgenthaler Ventures, Bessemer
Venture Partners, and New Enterprise Associates. "A $20 million
first round for a startup is always impressive," wrote the Venture
Reporter in its nanotechnology report (www.venturereporter.com), "but
in this economic climate it’s downright spectacular."
These monies resulted in an unusually mature business model. Due to
the recession, Weinbaum was able to buy capital equipment for 10 to
20 cents on the dollar and instead of a one year’s delivery time the
equipment arrived in six weeks. "It is a great time to be a startup
if you have money in the bank," he says. Also due to the downsizings,
he was able to choose from the plethora of good engineering talent.
Weinbaum thought about opening the firm in West Trenton but decided
instead to stay closer to his potential workforce, former Lucent employees,
so he settled in a 36,000-foot Somerset plant that is halfway between
Newark Airport and Princeton. "We have pulled people from Penn,
Canada, and California. To get people to move from California, that
says quite a bit."
It could be 30 to 50 years before nano manufacturing becomes commonplace.
And Weinbaum admits that for two years his initial market, the optical
industry, has been cratering. "But we have had more than 20 companies
order products for integration with other products and subsystems,"
says Weinbaum. "Regardless of the shape that the optical market
is in, it is still a $2.5 billion industry."
08873. Barry Weinbaum, CEO. 732-627-0808; fax, 732-627-9886. Home
At Princeton Corporate Plaza on Deer Park Drive, NanoNex
makes the nanoimprint lithography machines that NanoOpto — and
other research and manufacturing labs — can use. Larry Koecher
(pronounced kager), vice president of operations, is developing the
structure of the business and overseeing sales efforts.
"Stephen Chou is the inventor of nanoimprints," says Koecher.
"He has built 14 generations of this tool for his laboratories.
One year ago he decided it was time to begin the commercialization
Chou’s nanoimprint lithography method costs less than other high throughput
lithographic techniques. "We can put a tool in the hands of anyone
who needs nano structures fabricated at a fraction of what they would
have to pay for next generation lithographic tools," says Koecher.
"Some of those tools are $30 to $40 million. We provide an alternative
to those businesses, and also for universities, that find it economically
unfeasible to invest that kind of money." Princeton University
receives royalties from the Nanonex machines, and Chou’s NanoOpto
company is one of Nanonex’s big clients.
Born and raised in Minnesota, the 50-year-old Koecher had been a student
at the University of Michigan, but when he drew a low draft number
he entered the U.S. Army Signal Corps. After military service he worked
in Illinois for Leica Microsystems, first as a field service engineer,
then in management positions, most recently as project manager for
developing an electron beam lithography tool.
"Stephen Chou recruited me," says Koecher, explaining why
Chou did not need to use the services of a headhunter: "The advanced
lithography community is a very small one."
08852. Larry Koecher, vice president. 609-683-3973; fax, 609-683-3974.
Theo Lee, CEO of the 38-person Hydrocarbon Technologies
Inc. on New York Avenue in Trenton, is making international news for
his company’s nano work. Time magazine pictured Lee and his cohort
Bing Zhou in front of what looks like a fiery furnace in a two-page
layout in the September issue of the magazine. In September Lee was
selected as one of the nation’s top 10 innovators by a leading venture
publication, Red Herring.
His 38-person firm just signed a licensing agreement with the largest
coal company in China to build a $2 billion plant in Inner Mongolia
that will use HTI’s nanocatalyst to liquefy coal. The liquefaction
plant will be the biggest facility of its kind. Time suggested that
this technology could "tip the geopolitical scales" and reduce
the dependence on oil of coal-rich countries such as China, the U.S.,
and Germany, as well as significantly reduce pollution that contributes
to global warming.
The catalysis market worldwide is worth more than $10 billion and
nano-catalysis is billed as the best advancement in this field in
20 years. "A catalyst technology helps the reaction to work better,
faster, more efficiently," Lee explains. "The more surfaces
available, the greater and faster the reaction." He uses the example
of the surfaces available on one marble, versus those available on
a smashed marble.
"When nanoparticles make a reaction more efficient, it gets rid
of bad side effects and reduces the amount of precious metals needed,"
says Lee. "Also we are able to manipulate the orientations of
the crystals so that a certain reaction can reduce the amount of undesirable
HTI was founded in 1943 as Hydrocarbon Research Inc. by Percival Keith,
who at the Manhattan Project had refined uranium for atom bombs, and
who then invented a coal-to gas-to liquid fuel process. (U.S. 1, "Refueling
R&D," June 10, 1998). Lee, a graduate of Tunghai University in
Taipei, came to HTI in 1992. In 1995 HTI’s employees bought themselves
out, and last year HTI sold itself for $15 million to a publicly owned
company, Headwaters Incorporated, based in Utah.
"Nano is a relative term," says Lee. "Catalysis is always
small anyway, but nano is down to the atomic level. Our ability is
not in going small, but in having the know-how to be able to manipulate
the crystal’s orientation."
It is ironic that Trenton’s big contribution to nanotechnology is
housed in a 19th century brick factory that once supplied the Trenton
ceramics industry. HTI’s $4 million proof-of-concept laboratory and
pilot plant has a landmark eight-story "gasifier," sheathed
in scaffolding, on Route 1 just north of the New York Avenue exit.
Avenue, Lawrenceville 08648. Theo Lee, CEO. 609-394-3102; fax, 609-394-1278.
Nano technologies have been evolving for a long time,
but what has burst on the scene is the investor interest, says Harris
Goldberg of Hillsborough-based Inmat. He combines nanoclay particles
and rubber polymers in what SmallTimes (www.smalltimes.com)
calls nanocomposites, "a growing category of materials that fuse
ingredients to create new substances with unprecedented properties."
Like Theo Lee, Goldberg also had a day-long visit from a Time magazine
photographer, who pictured him juggling yellow tennis balls. Goldberg
hopes to leverage a long-accepted technology — nano-dispersed
clay — to coat tires for added strength. Because getting a contract
from rubber companies is such a long and drawn out process, he turned
to tennis balls to keep the company going.
"Certain nano materials have been around for a long time in catalytic
chemical production and the photography industry. What’s new is the
uses they are being put to," says Goldberg. For instance, his
preferred raw material, nano clay, has been used for 10 years for
a variety of paints and coatings. "Most other clays are sold as
viscosity modifiers for house paints."
Like Stephen Chou, he needed to find a quick-to-market product. "We
recognized that a coating approach gave us commercialization advantage.
Most others have tried to add a little bit of clay to a processing
line and have the clay magically disperse through the product and
give them the properties they want. All we wanted was improvements
in barrier properties. Because of more recent work in nanocomposites,
we were able to recognize how the nanocomposite coating could provide
the functionality required for our customers."
He takes apart the nanoclays and uses them on a molecular scale in
one dimension and on a microscopic scale in another dimension. Into
his coating he mixes nano dispersed clay, each sheet 1 nanometer thick
by 10-microns long. This coating provides a barrier for diffusion.
"When air tries to go through rubber, the air diffuses right through.
By putting the clay particles in and dispersing them properly, the
air has to go around the particles."
Goldberg and Carrie Feeney co-founded the firm in 1999. They acquired
all the rights to the nanocomposite coating technology that had been
developed by their team when it was part of Hoechst. They also acquired
all the equipment they were using, which placed the company in an
excellent position to continue its product development and commercialization.
Commercial sales started at the end of 2000.
Raised in the Bronx, where his father had a candy store, Goldberg
went to the City College of New York, Class of 1969, and has a PhD
from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Feeney went to Penn
State, Class of 1987, and has a PhD from Duke.
Inmat has a $250,000 interest-free loan from the New Jersey Commission
on Science and Technology and a $200,000 Seed Capital loan from the
NJ Economic Development Authority. The Army contract to develop chemical
protective gloves came through an SBIR grant.
The firm consists of seven people, and they all work together to manufacture
the coating in big mixing vessels that pour into 55-gallon drums.
"A batch takes several days to a week but is not labor intensive,"
says Goldberg. The nanocomposite coating is being used in Wilson Premium
tennis balls — the official balls of the Davis Cup.
Hillsborough 08844. Harris Goldberg, president. 908-874-7788; fax,
L, Monmouth Junction 08852. Young Hoon Kim, president. 732-438-8616;
fax, 732-438-8617. Home page: www.nanoditech.com
Nano-Ditech is developing a new kind of software for biomedical diagnostic
kits for point-of-care use. "We are working to make certain kinds
of biomedical diagnostic kits for pharmaceutical companies. For this
`lab on a chip’ we do the software and Nanonex does the hardware,"
says Young Hoon Kim, president and chief technical officer. He is
pioneering in electro immuno chromatography, which uses capillary
action to draw magnetic beads, coupled with gold and an antibody,
through a microfluidic channel. The antibody, its bead, and the gold
are retained by an in-channel magnet so that swift diagnosis can be
Kim went to Seoul National University, Class of 1983, and has a PhD
in microbiology. He and his wife live in West Windsor with their two
Corporate Plaza, Suite 100, Monmouth Junction 08852. John Shomers,
director of sales. 732-438-9400; fax, 732-438-8881. Home page:
Based in the United Kingdom, this firm offers microfluidic systems
for point of care diagnostics. "We’re providing nano tools,"
says John Shomers. "We reduced the microliters to nanoliters."
(U.S. 1, August 14).
Drive, Princeton Corporate Plaza, Suite G, Monmouth Junction 08852
Arnold J. Kelly, chief scientist. 732-274-1470; fax, 732-274-1454.
This eight-person firm is working with DuPont on nanofibers from polymers
with a wide range of applications. Founded in 1989, it does controlled
electrostatic charging of powders and liquids to enhance dispersion.
First, it is developing protective materials to strengthen barriers
against toxic substances, liquids, bacteria, and viruses. Nanofiber
materials have holes that are smaller yet allow vapor pressure to
pass through. Other potential applications are drug delivery and nanoelectrics,
says David Salem, vice president of R&D. "If you inject electrons
into polymer fluids, the electrons repel each other and break the
liquid up into fine fibers. Ours is a high throughput process."
The estimated time to market for these products is three to four years.
Plaza, Suite F, Monmouth Junction 08852. Wlodek Mandecki, president.
732-355-0100; fax, 732-355-0102. Home page: www.pharmaseq.com
Founded three years ago, this genomics company can perform nucleic
acid-based assays with the light-powered nanotransponders that are
less than 1000th the size of a grain of rice. They represent the world’s
smallest externally powered monolithic integrated circuit that can
transmit an identity code by radio frequency. The next smallest size,
made by competitors, is about the size of a Tylenol capsule.
PharmaSeq also has laser light-powered nanotags for non-biotech applications,
such Radio Frequency Identification Applications for commercial use,
acting as inexpensive alternative to a bar code. It could be used
for such products as works of art, CDs or DVDs, bank notes, traveler’s
checks, drivers’ licenses, and passports.
Sarnoff Corporation’s Jia Chen wants to measure biological
signals and interface that with electronics, such as a silicon chip.
This bioelectronic interface will use the power of the computer to
understand what is happening in the body. "We will be listening
to molecules communicating with each other," says Chen.
"In nanotechnology, everything is about scale, and the scale is
moving toward the molecule and moving toward atoms. What’s difficult
is the ability to control the molecules at that scale," says Chen.
Using MEMS as a basis, nanotechnology scientists have been integrating
biotechnology and biochemistry for applications in the medical area.
"We want to understand and gain an ability to control single molecules,
particularly molecules of interest in biology or medicine. We want
to see them and we want to manipulate them for other purposes beyond
the natural state," says Chen. The son of immigrants from Canton,
China, he went to Boston University, Class of 1995, and did his PhD
at Cornell in the MEMS area. He came to Sarnoff 2 1/2 years ago and
is technical manager of integrated microsystems.
Some very advanced biology is being pursued to do communications with
chemical reactions, using — for instance — growth hormones.
"We would like to tap into those communication channels with an
electronic probe," says Chen. With two other researchers he is
working on an initial seed stage contract from DARPA.
At least 18 senior researchers at Rutgers University
are pursuing various aspects of nanotechnology, and their areas of
study represent almost all the current varieties of nano research:
Szary of the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
are working at the nano level to build and test fuel cells that could
help replace today’s automobile combustion engine.
could help build better medical valves and implants is the thrust
of a team comprised of Thomas Tsakalakos and Richard Lehman of ceramic
and materials engineering, Helen Buettner of chemical and biochemical
engineering, Evangelia Tzanakou of biomedical engineering, and physicist
department, Haym Benaroya is working on analytical models to study
the dynamics of "space tethers." Assembled with super-strength
carbon nanotubes, such a tether would extend 62,000 miles into space
and allow payloads to slowly escape Earth’s gravity without brute
are working on ways to use "nanocarriers" to transport drugs
through the bloodstream. Chemical and biochemical engineers Fernando
Muzzio, Prabhas Moghe, and Silvina Tomassone are developing nanoparticle-based
systems for targeted and sustained delivery of delicate or insoluble
government — $422 million a year — and enthusiastic support
from private investors. As listed in Venture Reporter, investment
is divided more or less equally into optical/telecom, biotech, and
IT, with a small percentage going to energy projects.
The potential applications for nanotechnology is mindboggling. In
life sciences, where PharmaSeq is positioned, they include biodectors,
delivery of drugs through skin, stomach, and eyes, and design of replacement
organs. In consumer goods, where Inmat is working, paint could be
made graffiti proof.
Hydrocarbon Technologies represents the energy area, turning fossil
fuels into automotive fuel. In the IT area, represented by Chou’s
companies, nanotechnology could make flat screens less expensive,
and totally eliminate hard drives in PCs. Yes, nanotechnology could
be like the Internet, because it will change the world as we know
it. But let’s remember just how many fortunes were made — and
lost — in cyberspace.
Corrections or additions?
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