Aspects of nanoscience are taught and researched in the physics, chemistry, and biology departments of research universities throughout the American continents. However, significant activities in nanotechnology, including production and application of nanostructures, have been limited essentially to the United States and Canada.

The United States2

Various U.S. public and private funding agencies; large companies in chemical, computer, pharmaceutical, and other areas; as well as small and medium-size enterprises provide support for precompetitive research programs on nanotechnology. Most of the supported programs are evolving out of disciplinary research programs, and only some are identified as primarily dealing with nanotechnology. U.S. government agencies sponsored basic research in this area at a level estimated at about $116 million in 1997 (Siegel et al. 1998), as shown in Table 8.1. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has the largest share of the U.S. government investment, with an expenditure of about $65 million per year, or about 2.4% of its overall research investment in 1997. In 1998 it expanded its research support to functional nanostructures with an initiative in excess of $13 million.

Table 8.1
Support for Nanotechnology Research from U.S. Federal Agencies in 1997


Nanotechnology Research ($M)

National Science Foundation (NSF)


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)


Army Research Office (ARO)


Office of Naval Research (ONR)


Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR)


Department of Energy (DOE)


National Institutes of Health (NIH)


National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)


National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)



NSF activities in nanotechnology include research supported by the Advanced Materials and Processing Program; the Ultrafine Particle Engineering initiative dedicated to new concepts and fundamental research to generate nanoparticles at high rates; the National Nanofabrication User Network (NNUN); and Instrument Development for Nano-Science and Engineering (NANO-95) to advance atomic-scale measurements of molecules, clusters, nanoparticles, and nanostructured materials. A current activity is the initiative, Synthesis, Processing, and Utilization of Functional Nanostructures (NSF 98-20 1997).

In the United States, a number of large multinational corporations, small enterprises, and consortia are pursuing nanotechnology-related research and development activities. Dow, DuPont, Eastman Kodak, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Hughes Electronics, Lucent, Motorola, Texas Instruments, Xerox, and other multinationals have established specialized groups in their long-term research laboratories, where the total research expenditure for nanotechnology research is estimated to be comparable to the U.S. government funding. Computer and electronics companies allocate up to half of their long-term research resources to nanotechnology programs. HP spends 50% of long-term (over 5 years) research on nanotechnology (Williams 1998). Small business enterprises, such as Aerochem Research Laboratory, Nanodyne, Michigan Molecular Institute, and Particle Technology, Inc., have generated an innovative competitive environment in various technological areas, including dispersions, coatings, structural materials, filtration, nanoparticle manufacturing processes, and functional nanostructures (sensors, electronic devices, etc.). Small niches in the market as well as support from several U.S. government agencies through the Small Business for Innovative Research (SBIR) program have provided the nuclei for high-tech enterprises. The university-small business technology transfer (STTR) program at NSF is dedicated to nanotechnology in fiscal year 1999. Two semiconductor processing consortia, the Semiconductor Manufacturing and Technology Institute (Sematech) and the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), are developing significant research activities on functional nanostructures on inorganic surfaces.

A series of interdisciplinary centers with nanotechnology activities has been established in the last few years at many U.S. universities, creating a growing public research and education infrastructure for this field. Examples of such centers are

NNUN, mentioned above, is an interuniversity effort supported by NSF at five universities: Cornell, Stanford, University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB), Penn State, and Howard. It has focused on nanoelectronics, optoelectronics, electromechanical systems, and biotechnology. The Center for Quantized Electronic Structures (QUEST) at UCSB is a national facility developing expertise on underlying physics and chemistry aspects. Hundreds of graduate students have completed their education in connection with these centers in the last few years.

Current interest in nanotechnology in the United States is broad-based and generally spread into small groups. The research themes receiving the most attention include

  1. metallic and ceramic nanostructured materials with engineered properties
  2. molecular manipulation of polymeric macromolecules
  3. chemistry self-assembling techniques of "soft" nanostructures
  4. thermal spray processing and chemistry-based techniques for nanostructured coatings
  5. nanofabrication of electronic products and sensors
  6. nanostructured materials for energy-related processes such as catalysts and soft magnets
  7. nanomachining
  8. miniaturization of spacecraft systems

In addition, neural communication and chip technologies are being investigated for biochemical applications; metrology has been developed for thermal and mechanical properties, magnetism, micromagnetic modeling, and thermodynamics of nanostructures; modeling at the atomistic level has been established as a computational tool; and nanoprobes have been constructed to study material structures and devices with nanometer length scale accuracy and picosecond time resolution. While generation of nanostructures under controlled conditions by building up from atoms and molecules is the most promising approach, materials restructuring and scaling-down approaches will continue. Exploratory research includes tools of quantum control and atom manipulation, computer design of hierarchically structured materials (e.g., Olson 1997), artificially structured molecules, combination of organic and inorganic nanostructures, biomimetics, nanoscale robotics, encoding and utilization of information by biological structures, DNA computing, interacting textiles, and chemical and bioagent detectors.

Commercially viable technologies are already in place in the United States for some ceramic, metallic, and polymeric nanoparticles, nanostructured alloys, colorants and cosmetics, electronic components such as those for media recording, and hard-disk reading, to name a few. The time interval from discovery to technological application varies greatly. For instance, it took several years from the basic research discovery of the giant magnetoresistance (GMR) phenomenon in nanocrystalline materials (Berkowitz et al. 1992) to industry domination by the corresponding technology by 1997. GMR technology has now completely replaced the old technologies for computer disk heads, the critical components in hard disk drives, for which there is a $20+ billion market (Williams 1998). All disk heads currently manufactured by IBM and HP are based on this discovery. In another example, nanolayers with selective optical barriers are used at Kodak in more than 90% of graphics black and white film (Mendel 1997) and for various optical and infrared filters, which constitute a multibillion-dollar business. Other current applications of nanotechnology are hard coatings, chemical and biodetectors, drug delivery systems via nanoparticles, chemical-mechanical polishing with nanoparticle slurries in the electronics industry, and advanced laser technology. Several nanoparticle synthesis processes developed their scientific bases decades ago, but most processes are still developing their scientific bases (Roco 1998). Most of the technology base development for nanoparticle work is in an embryonic phase, and industry alone cannot sustain the research effort required for establishing the scientific and technological infrastructure. This is the role of government (e.g., NSF and NIH) and private agency (e.g., Beckman Institute) support for fundamental research.

Nanotechnology research in the United States has been developed in open competition with other research topics within various disciplines. This is one of the reasons that the U.S. research efforts in nanotechnology are relatively fragmented and partially overlapping among disciplines, areas of relevance, and sources of funding. This situation has advantages in establishing competitive paths in the emerging nanotechnology field and in promoting innovative ideas; it also has some disadvantages for developing system applications. An interagency coordinating "Group on Nanotechnology" targets some improvement of the current situation. The group was established in 1997 with participants from twelve government funding/research agencies to enhance communication and develop partnerships among practicing nanoscience professionals.


Canada's National Research Council supports nanotechnology through the Institute for Microstructural Science, which has the mission to interact with industry and universities to develop the infrastructure for information technology. The main project, the Semiconductor Nanostructure Project, was initiated in 1990. It provides support for fundamental research at a series of universities, including Queen's, Carleton, and Ottawa Universities.

2 For a more in-depth look at the state of nanoscale science and engineering R&D in the United States, see Siegel et al. 1998.

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian