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EU Research Drives Nanotechnology Revolution

12.06.2002


The nanotechnology revolution has started. At the cutting edge of science and innovation, nanotechnology offers unprecedented challenges and opportunities for researchers, businesses, and investors in Europe. Already fuelling innovative applications in industries as diverse as IT, automotive, cosmetics, chemicals, and packaging, nanotechnology also holds considerable promise to generate radical new applications – and foster the development of whole new sectors of activity. Amongst the most promising are energy storage and distribution; detection, measurement and testing; processors, bio-analysis and drug delivery, robotics and prosthetics.

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In this context, the EU organises an information event on Nanotechnology: a New Industrial Revolution at CEA-Minatec, in Grenoble, France, on 14 June 2002. This information event will immediately follow on a major EU-US conference on Nanotechnology and Nanomanufacturing, the third in a series of conferences held in conjunction with the US National Science Foundation, also held at CEA-Minatec. Specifically aimed at the press, it will gather some of the best specialists from research, industry and finance on both sides of the Atlantic. It will address the key scientific, technological, and economic challenges of nanotechnology, and highlight the opportunities for Europe’s researchers and entrepreneurs.

“Nanotechnology offers golden opportunities for European scientists and entrepreneurs” says Commissioner Busquin. “The complexity of scientific and technological challenges and the scale of investments needed to take innovations to market will require a determined international effort and strong public-private partnerships. This is why nanotechnology is a perfect fit for the European Research Area. It is also one of the key priorities of the 6th Framework Programme. By integrating scientific excellence across disciplines and geographical borders and maximising public and private investments (including risk capital), we will create the necessary critical mass to ensure European leadership in this exciting new area”.


BACKGROUND

The challenge of the small. One nanometre (nm) is one billionth of a metre or around 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Nanotechnology is an all-embracing term for a whoile spectrum of scientific and industrial activities involving in the study, manipulation and control of individual atoms and molecules. This makes it possible to build machines on the scale of human cells, and to create materials and products with ‘nano-scale’ structures conferring highly desirable properties. Nanotechnology is widely predicted to drive the next “industrial revolution”. As with information technology in the past decade, nanotechnology could have major impacts on virtually every aspect of human life.

Ultra-miniaturisation and molecular manufacturing techniques will bring new kinds of user-friendly, intelligent eco-efficient products and processes, whereby everything from houses, cars and clothing to communication systems and medical devices can be transformed to provide much higher levels of service than they offer today. Furthermore, the ability to accomplish a wide variety of tasks using ultra-small devices consuming minimal quantities of materials and energy will make an important contribution to sustainable development.

The scientific and technical challenges of working at this scale are huge. Future progress depends on the sharing of knowledge about tools and techniques, as well as on the exchange of expertise on the atomic and molecular interactions along this new scientific frontier. Nanotechnology is a truly multidisciplinary area of research and development, in which materials scientists, medical researchers, and mechanical and electronic engineers must work together with biologists, physicists and chemists. Additionally, equipment for nanomanipulation is, at this time, relatively scarce. Cooperation is crucial. This can be achieved by sharing equipment and knowledge in networks and virtual teams, and by the setting up of cooperative, multidisciplinary, public/private ventures such as Minatec – the world leading centre for micro and nanotechnologies chosen to host this information event.

Focus of global interest – and global competition. With their considerable implications in terms of technological advantage and market opportunity, nanotechnology is attracting considerable investment in the world. In fiscal year 2002, the USA mobilised over $600 (€ 656) million of public funding – and is seeking $710 (€ 776) million for 2003. Nanotechnology is also becoming a prime focus for venture capital firms in Europe and the US. Europe is vigorously responding. A recent survey identified 86 cross-border networks in nanotechnology, involving around 2000 organisations. This represents a total of € 200 million a year in public funding, with an additional estimated €100 million from the private sector – a total of nearly €1.5 Bn invested on nanotechnologies in Europe over the next five years

A new approach to research strategies. The European Commission is playing an active role in speeding developments in this field by improving integration with public and private partners, encouraging multidisciplinary approaches and training, and helping identify new solutions and products. A key aspect of the European Research Area, the new Research Framework Programme will result in nearly three times as much public funding for nanotechnologies as compared with today. The key objectives of the “Nanotechnologies and nanosciences” priority of the 6th FP include advancing basic knowledge in this area, as well as the development of new materials, new generations of processes and products, and the emergence of new industrial sectors. In addition, nanotechnology research will also be at the heart of other priorities of the 6th FP, notably “Genomics and biotechnologies for health” and “Information society technologies”.

However, beyond figures, what is important is how the money will be used – to stimulate and facilitate integration of initiatives, and to create networks of research and innovation. In the area of nanotechnology, uniquely well suited to the approach of the ERA and the new FP, “integrated projects” will foster stronger integration between research and innovation. Fostering cooperation between research and industry, these should radically transforming production processes for many industries. Additionally, “networks of excellence” will aim at long-lasting integration of public and private research in this area - optimising cooperation, sharing excellence and strengthening innovation between all actors.

Patrick Vittet-Philippe | alfa

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