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Big Hopes For Small Packages

It may be too small to see, but nanotechnology's visibility got yet another boost last week when President Bush included it, as well as supercomputing and alternative energy resources, as areas of research to which he wants the government to increase its commitment over the next decade.

So far, nanotech has produced a lot more studies and centers than commercial success. But that may be changing. In addition to the president's endorsement, Arizona State University last week opened the Center for Nanotechnology in Society to study the societal impacts of nanotechnology. With a $6.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the school built the center and will operate it for the next five years, with the goal of fostering nanotechnology's potential to improve people's health by creating nanobots that could perform microsurgery or in-body sensors that could monitor people's health.

There isn't evidence to prove that nanotechnology can perform these tasks well, but big things are expected of this tiny technology. The National Science Foundation expects the market for nanotech-related products and services to hit $1 trillion in 2015. Consulting Resources, a management-consulting firm in the chemical-process and biotechnology industries, estimates the U.S. market for nanomaterials is $200 million and forecasts it will exceed $4 billion by 2007.

But a recent study by British market-research firm Cientifica looks down its nose at nanotechnology, noting that while worldwide government spending on it totaled $4.8 billion in 2005, this funding takes an average of two to three years before it can even reach the lab and that much government spending is concentrated on research areas with little immediate commercial impact.

Still, don't bet against nanotechnology having a big commercial impact. But you might not want to set your watch by its progress.

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