Magazine

Nanotechnology's Obstacles Are Tremendous


Nanotechnology promises to usher in the next Industrial Revolution and replace our entire manufacturing base with a new, radically precise, less expensive, and more flexible way of making products ("The business of nanotech," Cover Story, Feb. 14). Yet the future of nanotechnology will rely first and foremost on creating the instruments, metrology devices, and tools (e.g., scanning probe microscopes, dip-pen lithography, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, etc.) that will enable us to effectively position molecules and build complex structures with automatically precise control (through top-down fabrication methods or bottom-up assembly techniques).

Every aspect of basic nanoscale science and the commercial production of nanotechnologies will depend on the capacity of these "picks and shovels" to measure, sense, fabricate, and manipulate matter at the molecular level.

Noel H. Nevshehir

Society of Manufacturing Engineers

Dearborn, Mich.

You suggest that carbon nanotubes show potential for hydrogen storage, thus improving the odds that hydrogen fuel cells could replace fossil-fuel engines. The development of sophisticated means for fuel storage of hydrogen does not solve the main problem of the present uneconomic cost of producing hydrogen for the fuel cell. As it stands, the use of the chemical hydrogen for fueling the fuel cell utilizes more energy in its extraction from natural gas than is derived from burning it to power the fuel cell in motor vehicles. That makes fuel-cell-powered cars a form of economic science fiction for the very long-term future, if not forever.

Michael Zelvin

New York

One of the largest challenges facing nanotechnology today is the lack of a business model to treat new materials as something other than commodities. Over the past century conventional materials prices have fallen relative to other goods, thus nanomaterials are often asked to compete with conventionally produced materials at costs that are lower by orders of magnitude. It can be a very different hurdle for a nanomaterials producer to demonstrate that a new quantum material may offer performance gains sufficient to compete with existing products.

Samuel Brauer

Nanotech Plus

Stamford, Conn.

Your useful review of nanotechnology rightly identifies the potential impact on materials with applications in a variety of sectors. However, it omits consideration of the impact on developing countries. Modern information and communications technologies promised a knowledge-intensive world for all, but they have created a digital divide of the knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor.

To avoid the ``nano divide,'' one way might be to adopt a pro-poor business approach that seeks to achieve wider social and environmental goals (e.g., clean water for the 1.1 billion who have no access to this very basic right). We are currently engaged in public dialogues about nanotechnologies in an attempt to improve the social sensitivity of the innovation process at the design stage. Contributions from your corporate readers would be welcome.

David J. Grimshaw

Intermediate Technology Development Group

Rugby, England

In "Learning to think like Warren Buffett" (News: Analysis & Commentary, Feb. 14), it is interesting, to put it mildly, that Warren E. Buffett loudly joined the liberal chorus that railed against President George W. Bush's "tax cuts for the rich" while simultaneously avoiding as much as possible of "his fair share" of tax liability as a professional investor.

Dan Coggin

Charlotte, N.C.

"The export engine needs a turbocharge" (News Analysis & Commentary, Feb. 14) asks: "What's the key to increasing exports?" Don't wait for the government to do it. Governments don't increase exports, businesspeople do. They always have. The U.S. market represents only 5% of the world's population. The other 95% may not be as wealthy but still represent a large and faster-growing group of consumers well worth pursuing. Companies in that other 95% of the world are working hard to get a piece of the U.S. market. The key to increasing U.S. exports is having American companies realize that the best way to defend their share of the American market is to go after foreign markets.

Michael Wynne

International Management Consulting Associates

Naperville, Ill.

A concerted government effort to promote U.S. exports is part of the solution. The Clinton Administration developed some programs in this field, such as organizing tours of senior executives, led by the Treasury or Commerce Secretary, to promising markets and setting up a "war room" in the Commerce Dept. to target major infrastructure opportunities abroad and help U.S. companies win contracts arising from them.

If the Bush Administration has taken any initiatives in this area, they haven't been very visible. Sadly, the Presidential campaign of Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) scarcely addressed this issue. Since the election a lot has been written about the need for the Democratic Party to once again become a "party of ideas." Development of a comprehensive export-promotion strategy would be a good place to start.

James S. Altschul

New York

Our business schools typically do not require courses in international business. Therefore, most of our graduates know little about the international aspects of their fields, whether it's accounting, finance, marketing, management, or any other business discipline. If Japanese, Korean, German, or French companies had the goods and services that American companies offer, they would sell hundreds of billions more abroad than we do!

Christopher M. Korth

Western Michigan University

Kalamazoo, Mich.

Your Feb. 14 Readers Report responding to "Social Security: Are private accounts a good idea?" (Special Report, Jan. 24) consisted of seven letters commenting on Social Security reform. All had one thing in common: They presented better ideas than what the Administration is currently proposing. Seven relatively random people from across the country put forth simple, effective, wide-ranging ideas. Social Security may need to be fixed, but what we really need is debate -- and political representatives willing to listen and do the right thing. There are much better solutions out there.

Donae Eckert

Akron


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