Nanomolecules are sometimes known as ‘Buckyballs’ because they’re shaped like architect Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.Good things come in small packages. And, in this case, they come in microscopic packages of one-millionth of a millimeter.
This is nanoworld, where a DNA string is a veritable giant, and a single cell is unthinkably huge. This is the last frontier of chemistry, one step before sliding into physics. This is where engineers use atoms as befits their Greek name: the smallest possible building blocks.
Nanotechnology is the hottest buzzword in high tech today, with applications ranging from nano-scale computer transistors and healthcare devices to heavy machinery and space exploration.
And, the Israeli scientific and business community is at the forefront of this emerging field. Israel is widely recognized one of the leading powers in nanotechnological research, with one team, led by Reshef Tenne of Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, recently being nominated for the World Technology Award alongside teams from IBM, Harvard and MIT.
“This is a field that demands a great commitment. But if you come up with original ideas, you can achieve amazing things,” Tenne said.
Recognizing the promise held by this area, a government-sponsored project, Magnet (a Hebrew acronym for Generic Technological Research and Development), has chosen to invest in nanotechnology and has already begun to organize a consortium of Israeli companies interested in the field.
“Nanotechnology is just a buzzword,” said Nir Zalmanov, business development manager of Sol-Gel, a developer of cosmetics and sunscreens, and leader of the consortium project, in explaining Magnet’s strategic investment decision.
“The important thing is the final product, and what makes us better than other fields is that we are not trying to educate the public to accept a new product. We’re not making a new third-generation cellular network, or a new information super highway. We are upgrading existing products, and are working with companies who have a good grasp of the market’s demands. That is why we have a better chance at a successful application.”
The Magnet consortium brings together large, medium and startup companies in Israel, all of which are battling the same difficulties. Initiating conferences and brainstorming sessions, the group lets the different research and development teams learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. When all the teams are faced with a similar problem, such as nanoparticles sticking together, they can bounce ideas off one another and reach solutions much faster.
Consortium members include international players like Dead Sea Bromides (a unit of Israel Chemicals), Makhteshim-Agan Industries and the cosmetics company Ahava. Brainstorming among the teams has led to the development of ideas such as nanoparticle pesticides, which can cover a field with one-tenth the amount of active materials used in conventional methods, thereby reducing costs and environmental damage. Another idea in the works is a nanoparticle improved fire-preventing material.
However, the most important research in the industry is the development of new and improved techniques to master the building of nanoparticles, Tenne said. In the past, particles were built “top-down” by fashioning an existing particle into the desired form. But soon this method will be supplanted by more precise “bottom-up” techniques, where the particles are literally built one atom at a time. The challenge of using these methods is to achieve self-assembly, whereby the molecules are coaxed to build themselves up from scratch.
One company trying to perfect such techniques is another member of the Magnet consortium, NanoPowders. The firm has developed a unique, patented mechanism for the creation of nanometric powders, a field shared by only a few other companies worldwide. The metallic powders, suitable for the health and electronics industries, will be able to improve devices significantly as well as make them much smaller than today.
“What we are creating is the foundation that others can later come and use for their own ideas,” Zalmanov said. “Once this foundation is ready, it can help realize the dreams or the really big dreamers – companies like Intel and the world’s largest pharmaceutical corporations. We will be making the brick and mortar for these dreams to come true.”
Ironically, the biggest obstacle blocking nanotechnology enterprises in Israel is not technological, but rather the human factor, Zalmanov said.
“After witnessing for many years a gradual decrease in chemistry studies, we now find that to use up existing research funds, we have to fight over good chemists. Israel must increase its ranks of chemists,” he said.
Tenne shares an optimistic view of the sector. “We still haven’t seen the big breakthrough of nanotechnology,” he said, predicting that it will happen within a decade.
“There is much appeal for scientists in nanotechnology, because we like new, exciting areas of research. And when the breakthrough happens, Israel will be there, at the forefront. Those who invest in the field now are the ones who will make the profit when this happens.”