Nanotechnology in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe is making progress in developing a suitable research infrastructure. The promise of nanotechnology is being realized through the confluence of advances in two fields: (1) scientific discovery that has enabled the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular control of material building blocks, and (2) manufacturing that provides the means to assemble and utilize these tailored building blocks for new processes and devices in a wide variety of applications. Technology programs cannot be developed without strong supporting science programs because of the scale and complexity of the nanosystems. The overlapping of discipline-oriented research with nanotechnology-targeted programs seems appropriate at this point in time. Highly interdisciplinary and multiapplication nanotechnology provides generic approaches that enable advances in other technologies, from dispersions, catalysts, and electronics to biomedicine. Essential trends include the following:

A characteristic of discovery in nanotechnology is the potential for revolutionary steps. The question "what if?" is progressively replaced by "at what cost?" The road from basic research to applications may vary from a few months to decades. Research and development is expensive, and the field needs support from related areas. The R&D environment should favor multiapplication and international partnerships.

Based on the data for 1996 and 1997 collected during this WTEC study, 1997 government expenditures for nanotechnology research were at similar absolute levels in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe (Table 8.2). (Estimated OECD data for 1997 indicated GDPs of $4.49 billion for Japan, $7.76 billion for the United States, and $7.00 billion for Western Europe.)

The largest funding opportunities for nanotechnology are provided by NSF in the United States (approximately $65 million per year for fundamental research), by MITI in Japan (approximately $50 million per year for fundamental research and development), and by BMBF in Germany (approximately $50 million per year for fundamental and applied research).

Large companies in areas such as dispersions, electronics, multimedia, and bioengineering contribute to research to a larger extent in Japan and the United States than in Europe. While multinational companies are pursuing nanotechnology research activities in almost all developed countries, the presence of an active group of small and medium-size companies introducing new processes to the market is limited to the United States.

In the United States, individual and small-group researchers as well as industrial and national laboratories for specialized topics have established a strong position in synthesis and assembly of nanoscale building blocks and catalysts, and in polymeric and biological approaches to nanostructured materials. The Japanese large-group research institutes, and more recently academic laboratories, have made particular advances in nanodevices and nano-instrumentation. The European "mosaic" provides a diverse combination of university research, networks, and national laboratories with special performance in dispersion and coatings, nanobiotechnology, and nanoprobes. With a relatively lower base in characterization and computing infrastructure, the research focus in Russia is on physico-chemistry phenomena, advanced processing, and continuum modeling. Interest and economic support, particularly for device-related research, is growing in China, Australia, India, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore.

Table 8.2
Government Expenditures on Nanotechnology Research in 1997, Based on the WTEC Site Interviews

Geographical Area

Annual Budget, NTR* ($ million)

Relative Annual Budget NTR/GDP* (ppm)




United States



Western Europe



Other countries (FSU, China, Canada, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore)






* NTR - nanotechnology research; GDP - Gross Domestic Product

The pace of revolutionary discoveries that we are witnessing now in nanotechnology is expected to accelerate in the next decade worldwide. This will have a profound impact on existing and emerging technologies in almost all industry sectors, in conservation of materials and energy, in biomedicine, and in environmental sustainability.

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian