Physicists Feel the Nano-Buzz


By Burt Helm Pasadena may have the Rose Parade. But on Mar. 20, downtown Los Angeles had the Parade of the Physicists. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, thousands of physicists headed down Figueroa Street to the Los Angeles Convention Center and the annual meeting of the American Physical Society. With over 6,000 scientists attending, it's the biggest and most venerable physics conference in the world.

And it has a rich history. It's the place where high temperature superconductivity was originally announced, and where transistors and memory-storage technology were discussed when they were in their early stages.

Walking the 10 blocks between the Los Angeles Convention Center and the Westin Bonaventure, the APS's hotel headquarters, it isn't hard to pick out the terribly academic physicists from regular Angelinos. This isn't a typical industry convention, either. You'll see attendees wearing anything from rumpled tweed sport jackets and tucked-in oxford shirts and slacks -- popular with the older set -- to ratty sneakers, jeans, and t-shirts -- more popular with the younger set.

SAY WHAT? The conference's raison d'etre is getting the top minds of the physics world in one place, where they can share ideas and present their research to one another.he official schedule for the five-day conference is two 800-page phonebooks, covering hundreds of niche topics, and a total of 6,300 talks. For the most part, scientists stick to their hyperfocused specialties. "Even we don't understand half the other talks" says Rob Schoelkopf, a quantum-computing specialist from Yale University.

But this year, one subject in particular assumed the spotlight: nanoelectronics, the science of taking electronics down to a microscopic level.

While the first simple nanotechnology products are entering the mainstream in the form of nanoparticles and composites in sunscreens, fabrics, and consumer goods, the talks drawing the biggest crowds here are focused on the next step: using nanomaterials for computing applications. Sessions with names like "carbon nanotube transistors" and "computational nanostructures" have attendees packing the room and spilling out into the hall.

READY CASH. Nanotechnology is hogging attention not only because it has proved such fertile ground for discovery but also "to a certain extent, because the money's there" says Michael Lubell, a spokesman for the APS. According to a report released by the society in February, 2005, while the Energy Dept. has started four new centers for nanotech-specific research and the feds now devote $5 billion annually to nanotechnology research, physics funding has decreased by 14% in the proposed federal budget for fiscal 2006.

The nano-buzz is evident even on the relatively small trade-show floor (it takes up only about a quarter of the center's entire exhibition hall). Traditionally, the booths at APS are occupied by science journals looking for papers and by vendors of lab equipment. Imagine one- or two-man teams standing behind bulky electronic meters and elaborate stainless steel gaskets, chambers, and other machinery used for growing, testing, and characterizing molecules, crystals, and chips. Excluding a blowup photo of a leather-clad blonde clutching a cryogenic vacuum chamber from startup company Oxford ICE, the exhibit floor is appropriately somber for a very serious science.

But among these conservative companies, nano-fabrication equipment startups are springing up, with names like Firstnano and Nano-Master. "Any corporation with money for R&D" wants to dabble in nanotechnology, says Cary Chee, chief executive of Firstnano, which makes equipment that fabricates nanowires and nanotubes, some of the elementary building blocks in nanotech. In addition to traditional technology companies, auto makers, and consumer-goods companies are buying lab equipment.

NANO-BUBBLE? Jon Lai, one of the founders of Atomate, another maker of nanotube fabrication equipment, says he was even approached by a bubble-gum company interested in nanotech -- he wouldn't say which it was. Using the simple building block materials, "they wanted to design something so that you could go to the store, put down 50 cents, and buy some nanotechnology from them" says Lai.

As scientists here at APS study some of the most sophisticated applications of nanotechnology yet, it'll be interesting to see which developments get bubble-gum money just a few years down the road. Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online


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