Brussels, 09 Mar 2004
Nanosciences and nanotechnologies are crucial to the establishment of a knowledge-based EU society and economy. New research structures, new skills and new attitudes are vital for success in this domain.
Research and technological innovation will play a decisive role in mastering the properties of matter, enabling atoms and molecules to be assembled in ways that exploit the remarkable functional and mechanical characteristics of materials at the nanoscale. This, in turn, will lead to the development of all kinds of new products and services capable of enhancing human health and quality of life, while also conserving resources and protecting the environment. World-class infrastructures and new interdisciplinary skills are essential to underpin the potential nanotechnology revolution.
Dawn of a new age
In broad terms, nanotechnology is still at an early stage. Most of today's applications are based on the production of ultra-thin films, and of nano-dimensioned particles of materials such as metal oxides and clays. At this scale of below around 100nm, the classical laws of physics no longer apply, giving way to new properties defined by quantum physics – the so-called 'quantum size effect'.
When particles of material are reduced to nanoscale dimensions, fundamental characteristics such as electrical conductivity, colour, strength and melting point are all subject to change – often bringing dramatic improvements in performance. Because of their very small size, nanoparticles also have a relatively huge surface area, making them ideal for use as absorbers, sensors and catalysts.
These differences are already being exploited in a variety of exciting new products, some of which are beginning to generate substantial income. Examples include:
Zinc oxide, used to provide UV protection in sun creams – at nano-size, the particles become transparent and are thus more cosmetically appealing than the traditional white product;
Particles for improving lacquers and paints to provide better protection of surfaces against scratching, soiling or algae coverage;
Self-cleaning or self-sterilising surfaces with important applications in the food industry and healthcare – these are made by growing hydrophobic or lipophobic chains on a surface to make it water- or fat-repellent;
Medical devices and implants with surfaces modified through nanotechnology to reduce rejection rates – functionalised nanoparticles also have the potential to selectively attack brain and other tumour cells; and
High density data storage media making use of the giant magnetoresistive properties of nanoscale granular magnetic materials. Carbon fullerenes – nanotubes and 'buckyballs' – are a further particularly exciting class of materials. Many times stronger and lighter than steel, and able to act as electrical conductors or semiconductors, they will open the door to a huge range of applications once methods have been developed to manufacture them inexpensively in industrial quantities
Offering a huge potential
"The investigation of matter and its control at the nanoscale offer a huge potential that can benefit society as a whole, and significantly increase our industrial competitiveness," points out Renzo Tomellini, Head of Unit for nanosciences and nanotechnologies at the European Commission Research DG.
"Nanoscale research and technology also represent a great intellectual and scientific challenge. They address those phenomena whose effects can be observed at the macro-scale, but understood (and then mastered) only when looking and operating at the nano level.
"Here, the traditional scientific disciplines converge. Consequently, new inter-disciplinary approaches need to be developed. Some of the underlying technologies will be disruptive in nature, leading to radical changes in industrial practices. New manufacturing tools will be required, as well as an entrepreneurial attitude in defining and supporting novel industrial production routes. Considerable resources and effort are essential to meet these challenges successfully and in a timely manner."
Change of emphasis
The emphasis of Community research must move from short- to longer-term activities – and from incremental to radical innovation and breakthrough strategies. Furthermore, nanotechnology cannot be allowed to become an example of the 'European paradox', i.e. the contradiction seen in the past between Europe's good scientific performance and the relatively poor exploitation of research results to gain technological and economic benefits.
Europe-wide networks and projects are vital to give research organisations and industry access to new technologies that will stimulate the implementation of new approaches in most industries, especially the SME-intensive sectors. A key issue will be to integrate competitiveness, innovation and sustainability into consistent RTD activities addressing the whole cycle of production, consumption and end-of-life treatment.
Co-operation on an international scale will also be a prerequisite to reaching the large critical mass needed to study possible environmental and social effects.
Radical innovations imply new knowledge creation and new ways of exploiting it. Particular attention must be given to the strong presence and interaction of innovative enterprises, universities and research organisations in research actions. Moreover, while astonishing progress has already been made, the need remains for a common language to unite researchers from so many different fields of scientific research.
The integration of education and skills development with research activities will also play an important role in increasing European knowledge, and thereby opening up opportunities for numerous industrial applications. In addition, it is expected that breakthrough research activities should help to foster dialogue with society and generate enthusiasm for science.
Growth in funding
According to a survey by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in mid 2003, the worldwide nanotechnology research and development investment reported by government organisations has increased approximately seven-fold in the last six years, from €360 million in 1997 to about €2500 million in 2003. The 2003 figures split as approximately €697 million for the USA, €720 million for Japan, €585 million for Western Europe (the EU and Switzerland), and €720 million for the rest of world.
At least 30 countries have initiated national activities in this field. Scientists have opened a broad net of discoveries that does not leave any major research area untouched in physics, biology and engineering. Industry has gained confidence that nanotechnology will bring competitive advantages. The worldwide annual industrial production in the nanotechnology sectors is estimated to approach €1 trillion in 10 to 15 years from now, which would require about two million nanotechnology workers.
For Europe, a synergy between public and private funding is needed in this period of fast development. Banks will also have to play a major role.
Role for ERA
A strong European Research Area (ERA) will allow the European nanotechnologies industry to strengthen its competitiveness by further developing the high-tech know-how required, and to stay in the race with the USA and Asia, both of which are investing massively in this area. For example, the US Congress recently approved an appropriation of $849 million (€708 million) for fiscal 2004.
Under the EU Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), with a total budget of €17.5 billion, the Commission is devoting €1.3 billion over the four-year term to thematic priority 3: Nanotechnologies and nanosciences, knowledge-based multifunctional materials and new production processes and devices. However, a primary objective is to raise the overall level of research investment to 3% of GDP by 2010. This will depend upon stronger participation by Member State and regional authorities, as well as a greatly increased commitment from the private sector.