National Nanotechnology Initiative Committee Releases Triennial Review

Earlier this month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released the Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative by a committee made up of members from the National Materials and Manufacturing Board, a Division of Engineering and Physical Sciences. The report outlines two main objectives: examining the systems being implemented to accelerate growth in the nanotechnology industry and the commercialization of innovations; and analyzing the physical and human infrastructures needed to advance nanoscience and engineering to bolster the US economy.

The interagency National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was established in 2003 under the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act. It focuses on advancing nanoscience and nanotechnology, as well as education, workforce, and commercialization in the sectors. Through focused R&D in nanoscale science, engineering and technology, the NNI aims to achieve four goals: accelerating a renowned nanotechnology R&D program; technology transfer of innovations for economic benefit; creating and sustaining the education, workforce and infrastructure needed to advance nanotechnology; and “responsible development” of nanotechnology.

Development and Commercialization

The commercialization of nanotechnology developments is a key issue in the Triennial Review. According to a report on corporate spending in the nanotechnology market by Lux Research, the market totaled $1 trillion in 2013; by 2018, it projects, the market will reach $3 trillion. Currently, the US accounts for 25% of the global nanotechnology market, trailing Europe and Asia.

The Committee posits that through investments of approximately $1 billion into the NNI for research and infrastructure development, commercial revenue from nanoscale science and engineering (NSE) products will reach an estimated $100 billion, approximately, in annual revenue growth.

The US is a leader in training nanoscientists and engineers, with over 75 postsecondary institutions offering degrees in the subject. The NNI is also a chief player in the promotion and sponsoring of nanoscience events on behalf of the government. Nanomanufacturing has been an area of focus for the NNI since 2004, and with the establishment of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation in 2011, growing the nanotechnology workforce is crucial to the NNI.

Creating a framework outlining the transition from research to commercialized products is key for the NNI. According to the Committee, the establishment of national infrastructures, including initiatives like the NNI, provides government-funded R&D and –sponsored workshops that help advance knowledge in the field. With additional corporate investments for the development of commercialized products, there have been a greater number of ventures, strategic alliances, employment opportunities, equity investment and trade incentives, which ultimately positively impact the economy. These developments also lead to advancements in the sectors of food/fuel/energy, medical/health, environment, industrial products (both domestic and exported) and communications, furthering economic benefits.

Generally, the federal government is vital to the discovery, applied research and early-stage development of NSE products, while the private sector is key to product development and commercialization. The NNI serves as a link for these steps through its growing focus on translational research, which concentrates on improved methods to translate basic R&D advancements into commercialization. Possible methods include launching a startup company for commercial application of the R&D discovery or licensing the product to an existing, established company.

Recent advancements in research in the fields of advanced materials, medicine, semiconductors and sensors are creating new opportunities for boosting the economy through nanotechnology commercialization and workforce enhancement. Supporting basic research is the foundation of the NNI, and along with infrastructure and instrumentation development, R&D has received consistent government support in the NNI.

R&D and Instrumentation

In order to perform advanced R&D in NSE, high quality instrumentation and facilities are required. Historically, agencies such as the DOE, NIST, NSF, NCI, FDA and Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL) have greatly contributed to the physical infrastructures needed for such R&D. The NSF has funded numerous centers that focus on manufacturing, materials, electronics, environment and education related to NSE. Due to consolidated funding, however, the future of available instrumentation for the centers’ research purposes may be affected.

Numerous centers operate as facilities to advance nanotechnology research. The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST), part of NIST, is a significant player in the discovery-to-production pathway for NSE. Established in 2007, the CNST provides opportunities for both government and non-government researchers to collaborate on creating the next generation of nanotechnology instruments and methods. By 2014, the CNST had 2,100 users from 464 institutions, including 168 private organizations. The NIST provides funding for instrument recapitalization as part of the CNST budget.

The DOE’s Nanoscale Science Research Centers, which address challenges of theory, synthesis, characterization, fabrication and platform integration within nanotechnology, also provide instrumentation and leading-edge facilities for NSE researchers. The Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL), part of the NIH and NCI, contributes to progress in the field, specifically in nanomedicine. By standardizing characterization procedures, reformulating APIs, and creating sensors, devices and unique combinations of medical products for the treatment of cancer and other diseases, the NCL has also greatly contributed to the progress of NSE.

The Committee recommends that these types of facilities put more efforts towards collectivizing the nanoscience research community by sharing training materials and informatics data and tools developed at the separate facilities, as well as creating a common proposal process for obtaining costly and specialized instrumentation. Through this consolidation of user-facilities and information, the NNI agencies can eliminate duplication, and increase efficiency in production and costs.

The facilities also have to deal with the challenge of updating or replacing instrumentation approaching obsolescence and creating new instruments. Generally, purchasing individual instruments for the facilities can cost up to $2 million, or 10% of the agency centers’ budgets, and new NSE instrument development projects cost approximately $5 million. This strains the budget and makes it difficult to upgrade instrumentation without additional funds. Virtually all of the NNI facilities have budget constraints in regards to keeping up with research advancements and developments.

The National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), a grid of 13 academic nanotechnology research facilities which host nanotechnology experts and instrumentation, had a total budget of approximately $180 million from 2004 to 2014 for its 14 facility sites. The National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure, the NSF’s facilities which link academic educators with scientists, had a total budget of $81 million in 2016, with annual award budgets ranging between $0.5 million and $1.6 million over 5 years for 16 selected facility sites. The budgets do not cover the high costs of procuring, updating and recapitalizing instrumentation equipment.

The NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation program funds instrument procurment between $0.1 million and $4 million, but since the program’s inception in 2005, only 13% of the awards handed out by the program have gone to NSE R&D. Because of this, the Committee recommends that the NSF and DOE collaborate with NNI agencies to classify funding mechanisms for acquiring and sustaining equipment and computational tools to maintain the capabilities of the NSE facilities.

Many federal agencies have created numerous programs to push developments from the applied research stage to product development and manufacturing, as that is the area with the most private investments. The Committee noted that the high growth rate in basic and applied R&D requires high quality infrastructures with the funding to cover new or recapitalization of instruments and research tools. The NNI remains committed to increasing the value of nanotechnology as a means to strengthen the economy.

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