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Nanotech: Dissecting What It Is, and Isn't

"You can buy a golf driver from a Japanese company called Maruman that uses fullerenes as part of a composite that forms the head of the golf club," he says. "There's also a company called C60 that has an agreement with Merck (MRK) to develop drugs that would offset or reverse the damage from Alzheimer's. They are also based on fullerenes. You couldn't imagine two applications that are further away from one another, but they're using exactly the same new material."

Nordan says it's more helpful to think of three types of nanotech-related areas: the nanomaterial makers, the intermediaries manufacturing composite materials using nanoparticles and the end-user companies creating and selling nano-enabled products. Nanomaterial maker Southern Clay, for example, ships its nanosized clay particles to intermediary, plastics manufacturer Basell, which makes a composite used by General Motors in the doors of its Impala models.

2. 'Nanotechnology is new.'

"Things with a dimension of under 100 nanometers with size-dependant properties have been around for hundreds of years," Nordan says. "Egyptians made colloidal gold nanoparticles and used them to make red dye that went into pottery. Cat litter is able to absorb these odoriferous particles that it traps in nano-sized holes; People have been synthesizing cat litter the same way since the 1930s."

Even the idea of nanoscience has been around longer than many of the scientists who are now devoting their careers to it. In 1959 Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, delivered a now legendary talk called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," suggesting the ability to manipulate atoms and molecules through a series of progressively smaller tool-making machines.

The term "nanotechnology" came a few decades later. It was first used in 1974 by Norio Taniguchi, a professor at Tokyo Science University, and popularized by Eric Drexler, who now heads up the Foresight Institute and who in 1986 published Engines of Creation , which outlined the possibilities of molecular nanotechnology. The emergence of high-powered, scanning-powered microscopes gave scientists the means to observe and manipulate objects on the nanoscale, although at costs that are still too high to allow for mass production.

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