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About This Technology

This Technology Map assesses the commercial potential of nanomaterials of nonbiological origin. Many conflicting definitions of what constitutes a nanomaterial exist; however, for this text, a nanomaterial is a material that has dimensions or features between 1 and 100 nanometers and, as a result of these small features, has unique properties. At this scale, gravity no longer plays an appreciable role, and other forces—such as electrostatic interactions—tend to dominate. Factors such as size, shape, and even the nature of the surrounding material govern the properties of nanomaterials, unlike with bulk materials. Nanomaterials have the potential to outperform conventional materials in practically every sense. They exhibit enhanced mechanical and electrical characteristics, as well as unique optical properties. The astonishing properties that nanomaterials possess mean that they have the potential to revolutionize virtually all industry sectors completely and address a variety of commercial needs. The drive toward thinner, lighter, cheaper, and—perhaps above all—higher-performing materials across the board means that nanomaterials will be at the heart of most applications in the future.

Nanomaterials already pervade our everyday lives to an extent that people do not generally fully appreciate. The novel properties that they exhibit and the extent to which these properties are tunable give rise to an almost endless list of potential applications and commercial products that improve the performance of existing materials. Nanomaterials already find use in the electronics industry, the health sector, the production and storage of renewable energy, a wide variety of consumer goods, the construction industry, and the automotive sector. However, this "nanorevolution" is still in its infancy and will undoubtedly continue as researchers discover new materials and processes and the technologies mature. The potential that nanoscale materials have to transform such a wide range of products and applications means that nanomaterial-based research is now a multi-billion-dollar field. Many major corporations and most universities now have dedicated teams conducting this research. The current world leader in nanotechnology research, in terms of number of published patents, is the United States. Asia is also particularly strong in the field of nanotechnology; the next-highest patent-publishing countries are Japan and South Korea, followed closely by Germany and Taiwan. The United States publishes more than double the amount of patents that these other four countries publish in combination. The principal driving forces behind developments in nanomaterials include improvements to functionality and the reduced costs that developers incur. Certain barriers to progress do, however, also exist. Chief among them is public concern about the potential health-related effects of nanomaterials, particularly in consumer products. Research into related health issues must take place in order to allay any concerns and improve the public perception of nanomaterial-based products. Regulations could inhibit the application or expansion of nanomaterials, particularly in fields such as medicine and personal-care products.

Discoveries that would have been inconceivable a mere five to ten years ago are now occurring on a regular basis. These advances accelerate the progress of research. The fast-moving nature of the field means that companies that keep abreast of recent developments will be able to remain at the forefront of cutting-edge technology and will be best placed to identify opportunities and reap the rewards of early implementation. Nanomaterials pose a large threat to existing technologies and materials that could conceivably be swept aside by innovative and superior alternatives. In the near term, not only will nanomaterials refine the development of existing technologies, but also they will bring new emerging and disruptive technologies to the marketplace. In the long term—according to some fanciful visionaries—nanomaterials may lead to a powerful and accelerated social revolution in which virtually all present-day industrial processes become obsolete. Long-term consequences are always debatable, but without doubt, nanomaterials have an important role to play across many industries and will, with time, have a strong impact on people's lives.