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Nanotech applications proliferate

Firms ranging from advanced manufacturing and medicine to electronics and food are increasingly using nanotechnology, and that’s a good sign for local companies that specialize in developing the technology.

Firms ranging from advanced manufacturing and medicine to electronics and food are increasingly using nanotechnology, and that’s a good sign for local companies that specialize in developing the technology.

Central Pennsylvania’s small contingent of nanotech firms is moving slowly toward commercial applications of their research. While a future market exists, it’s not going to be populated with area products overnight.

Penn State University’s Center for Nanotechnology Education & Utilization lists only three firms in the region. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., lists about the same number of companies. The individual companies differ on each list, so the actual number of nanotech companies might be slightly higher.

One company that has been successful in attracting investment for its nano-ideas is Illuminex Corp. The Lancaster County-based research and development firm has attracted more than $2 million in funding for research in nano-wires, submicroscopic filaments that are useful in cooling applications, medical sensors and solar panels.

Illuminex is about six months from having its nano-tube cooling systems ready for applications, such as computers, said Youssef Habib, Illuminex’s chief executive officer. Considering that the company has only been around since 2003, that’s an impressive turnaround to have an idea go to application. But it doesn’t always happen like that, Habib said.

“First, it takes a long time to go from concept to research and development, then application,” Habib said. “Usually it’s a 10-year cycle.”

Illuminex also is working on nano-threads for solar-panel cells. The threads would make the devices more efficient. Another application is a high-accuracy medical sensor. These projects are just starting to receive funding and could be years away from commercial application, Habib said.

York County-based ARmark Authentic Technologies already has a product on the market. It produces anti-counterfeiting markers that are about half the diameter of a human hair, invisible to the unaided eye. Food stores can use scanners to make sure that produce is actually coming from the region advertised. And the tags can be made from edible, nontoxic substances to be placed right on fresh produce. No sticker is required.

“That’s the one good thing about our technology,” said Jeff Robertson, ARmark’s director and general manager. “It’s flexible and can be modified for different products.”

ARmark, a division of Adhesives Research, was able to launch its product in about a year because counterfeiting is widespread, Robertson said. Today the company has more than a dozen clients.

Dauphin County-based Applied Research & Photonics Inc. wants funding for research and development of a more powerful computer chip to be used in medical imagining and fiber-optic communications.

“If we get funding now, it could be turned around in six to 12 months,” said Anis Rahman, ARP’s president.

But funding isn’t always easy to find, he said. Some investors are suspicious of new technology and approach investments conservatively.

Michael Shoemaker, a principal with Lancaster-based venture-capital firm Wellspring FV, said there are plenty of investors out there, but companies must aggressively seek funding from the right sources. That’s the norm, he said.

“Investors are not chasing companies around,” Shoemaker said. “They’re usually beating them back with a stick.”

Wellspring invests in technology, but it does not focus on the highly specialized nanotechnology market.

Nanotech firms always have the option of selling their ideas to the U.S. government, Rahman said. While private investors want a commercial return on their investment, the government wants technology for different reasons. It’s able to invest in projects that will solve a current problem. Rahman has approached the government about developing ARP’s computer chip.

In April, the U.S. Department of Defense released a report on its nanotechnology research and development program. Additional funding for nanotechnology development is needed, according to the report.

In fact, though, funding is going down. The defense department estimates 2007 spending at $417 million, down from $424 million for fiscal-year 2006. And the department’s 2008 request is about $375 million.

About nanotechnology

What is it? Generally, any research and development or manufacturing process that engineers products on a microscopic, molecular or atomic level.

Where is it being used? There are centers of nanotech development all over the world, but the U.S. is a leader in these fields at major metropolitan areas in Massachusetts, Texas, New York and California.

Who is using it? Nanotechnology got a big jumpstart in the mid-1980s after the invention of the electron and scanning tunnel microscopes, which are capable of seeing the submicroscopic worlds. Scientists Ernst Ruska, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer shared the Nobel Prize for the inventions in 1986.

How small is it? A nanometer is one-millionth of a millimeter. Human DNA strands are about 2.5 nanometers wide. A human hair is 120,000 nanometers wide.

Sources: www.nano.gov, www.nobel.org

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