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Tiny Technology Holds Big Economic Potential

March 19, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the latest in a series of reports making sense of the economy, economics correspondent Paul Solman examines the small scale of nanosciences and the big impact they could have on the economy.

JIM LEHRER: Now, “NewsHour” economics correspondent Paul Solman explores the mega-implications of nanoscience. It’s part of his continuing reporting on Making Sense of the economy.

FELICE FRANKEL, photographer, “No Small Matter”: It’s an image of flight patterns. You are actually seeing the patterns of airplanes going from city to city.

PAUL SOLMAN: Felice Frankel is photographer for a new book, “No Small Matter” — the point of her imagery, to illustrate the eerie beauty of science at the smallest, normally non-visible, scale.

But what struck us was that her subject, nanotechnology, is also key to America’s economic future. If airplanes connected us in ways we could plainly see:

FELICE FRANKEL: Now, we are connecting in other ways as the image below it indicates, and that is the way the Internet is connecting us.

PAUL SOLMAN: Connecting us via circuitry measured in nanometers, each of which is one-billionth-of-a-meter, a millionth-of-a-millimeter.

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But back to the bigger pictures and chemist George Whitesides, who wrote the book’s text.

GEORGE WHITESIDES, author, “No Small Matter”: One is the flow of airplanes. One is the flow of bits. And the world is now moving with bits because, rather than going to Beijing, it’s a lot cheaper to fly the information there, if I can use the word, with bits through optical fibers or satellites.

All the functional devices in those are on the nanometer scale now. It’s truly astonishing. So, nano is the physical basis of the Internet.

PAUL SOLMAN: Cyberspace is a technology developed by U.S. government investment, and then mostly made in America. But that doesn’t guarantee an economic advantage as the Internet takes over the world.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: We pioneered it, no question. For interesting and complicated reasons, as a country, we are now behind some, not many, but some countries, in installations which make it possible for every household and every child to be connected.

So, the trouble with being a first adopter is that you’re also the first to grow obsolete.

PAUL SOLMAN: Maintaining America’s position in the world’s economic networks, it turns out, depends more and more on smaller and smaller.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: A hair is about 100,000 nanometers in width. So, if you want to think about a nanometer, think of a hundred-thousandth of a hair.

PAUL SOLMAN: And if you don’t want to think about a nanometer, says Whitesides, who runs one of America’s top research labs at Harvard, with more than a little help from his government, it could cost the American economy, because what the public doesn’t understand, it might no longer support, while other countries invest in the next phase of technology.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: The United States has had a long history of economic prosperity, which has come, in part, from innovation.

We have been very good at taking science which comes out of the research universities and out of industry, and converting that into new ideas, new devices, and then commercializing those, and taking advantage of the fact that the new part of it gives us a proprietary advantage in the technology. And nano is one of the areas in which this kind of innovation is taking place and has the potential to take place in the future.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, economics sort of boils down to doing more with less, conserving space and materials, for example, as recording shrinks from phonographs playing vinyl albums — this is a groove from the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” — to iPods the size of bedbugs, as computers shrink from room-size to microchip.

And the incredible shrinking continues. Consider this robot, a 1- centimeter bee.

FELICE FRANKEL: And the idea behind it is that that bee can sense signals that will tell it to go somewhere, and sense smells and other kinds of chemistry.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: And this object, this bee, makes a point, which we didn’t really know how easy it was going to be. Could you make a robot that was able to lift itself off the ground and hover? This thing can lift itself off the ground. It can hover.

PAUL SOLMAN: And where does the United States stand with regard to other countries with respect to robots?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: We’re probably ahead in many areas of research. We’re probably behind in many areas of implementation. The biggest implementations are in manufacturing. A lot of manufacturing has gone offshore now.

But, for example, in robotic surgery, the United States still leads, and, in exploratory ideas like micro-robots, and soft robots, and autonomous robots, we’re doing some of the best research still.

PAUL SOLMAN: The best research in both robots and in an industry that may increasingly define the global economy in this new decade, biotech, especially now, with the sequencing of the human genome, depicted by Frankel as a phone book, listing all the amino acid combinations out of which we not-so-humble humans are made.

FELICE FRANKEL: The idea was to try to show the enormity of the information in our genes. And you have seen gazillions of base pairs shown, but how do you really give a sense of the quantity?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: The problem now is, we have got to figure out what it means.

PAUL SOLMAN: We have got to crack the code, that is, and then figure out how to tinker with our genes at the nanoscale to make our cells behave as we wish.

FELICE FRANKEL: These are cells that are labeled with things called quantum dots that are — that are made in the laboratory. And when you put it under U.V. light, ultraviolet light, you’re exciting the material, and you actually see them fluorescing.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: And the information that’s there is information about what the proteins are that are positioned on the surface of the cell. What we have to do is to figure out what that collection of proteins is telling the cell, how it tells the cell, and then how the cell reads that information and does something in response.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not to sound nationalistic here, but how is the United States doing economically in this area?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: The U.S. does very well in fundamental biology and in innovative medicine. We still lead the world in this area. One consequence of that is that, although were doing terrifically well in terms of innovation, we also have a very, very expensive health care system, so that there’s a push and pull in this, that we’re developing a very sophisticated understanding of biology from the molecule to the organism, and the second is that that’s being expressed in terms of a very expensive set of technologies.

PAUL SOLMAN: One expensive American nanotechnology is that blue blob, a statin, designed to keep heart arteries from clogging with cholesterol.

GEORGE WHITESIDES: What you see is something in which the little blue piece of chewing gum has wedged itself into a part of the big molecule that helps to make cholesterol and block it from doing its job. The statin market, I don’t know, but I think its $5 billion to $10 billion a year. And this is a product of the American pharmaceutical industry.

PAUL SOLMAN: And is that where a lot of the action is in nanotechnology now?

GEORGE WHITESIDES: Yes, it is a frontier of nanotechnology, but so is information. So is energy. So are other things.

PAUL SOLMAN: Other things that could well determine America’s place in the world economic order in the decades ahead.