HD38 - A Study on Nanotechnology in Virginia

    Executive Summary:
    Through House Joint Resolution 120 (HJR 120), the 2004 General Assembly directed the Joint Commission on Technology and Science (JCOTS) to "identify nanotechnology research and related economic development opportunities for the Commonwealth." In conducting its study, HJR 120 required JCOTS to “consider the efficacy of creating a statewide, comprehensive, and coordinated strategy to (i) secure additional federal research and development funds, and (ii) increase commercial activity in this fast-emerging sector.”

    Pursuant to the resolution, JCOTS created an advisory committee, which was co-chaired by three Commission members - Delegate Purkey, Senator Wampler, and Delegate Cosgrove - and composed of 25 citizen members from the public and private sectors who possess a wide variety of experiences and knowledge. The committee included representatives from the offices of Senators John Warner and George Allen, department heads and representatives from the Commonwealth's major research institutions, representatives of state and local government, and nanotechnology industry leaders from around the Commonwealth. This diverse group provided a strong foundation upon which to build discussions of relevant nanotechnology issues and the needs of the Commonwealth.

    The Committee gathered an extensive amount of information about nanotechnology and its impact on the world economy. Nanotechnology is an emerging science that will have a profound impact on health care, homeland security, national defense and the national infrastructure, and has the potential reach a $1 trillion impact within the next 10 to 15 years. Opportunities exist for numerous industries such as electronics and optics, healthcare, the environment, energy, microspace, bio-threat detection, transportation, and national security.

    Nanotechnology involves the ability to engineer systems with components on length scales of one to 100 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). Scientists actually manipulate atomic structures to create new materials with new properties. Properties and structures of materials at these reduced scales often are different and better. The ability to make things smaller means that they are cheaper, lighter, and use less power to operate.

    In December of 2003, the federal government enacted the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (S.189) authorizing almost $3.7 billion in government funding for nanotechnology research and development (R&D). The legislation emphasizes the establishment of R&D Centers in academia and government. There are now over 50 institutes and centers dedicated to nanotechnology research. For example, the National Science Foundation has established the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network - comprised of 13 university sites - that will form an integrated, nationwide system of user facilities to support research and education in nanoscale science, engineering and technology. Similarly, there are currently 15 government agencies with R&D budgets dedicated to nanotechnology.

    Major new opportunities exist for the Commonwealth in nanotechnology, such as the development of new methods for self-assembly of materials, based upon both biological and non-biological methods, and the creation of new materials, methods, and instruments for harnessing sub-atomic properties. Opportunities also exist for the development of improved instruments and techniques for structuring and patterning materials at ever-increasing levels of precision and the ability to measure the three-dimensional structure, properties, and chemistry of materials down to the atomic scale, a sort of a “nano-GPS.” Researchers also will be able to take advantage of the interface between nanomaterials and biological systems, enabling widespread improvements in human health.

    In Virginia, opportunities exist for partnerships in research, manufacturing, and education. The Commonwealth can capitalize on existing research facilities and its expertise, lead educational programs, and grow its nanomanufacturing base. However, the nanotechnology economy brings with it several challenges. First, it requires the ability to manufacture nanomaterials in sufficient volumes and at affordable prices. Second, it requires developing a trained nanomanufacturing workforce. In addition, a key link in transitioning between the stages of research and commercial application is missing in nanomanufacturing.

    Small businesses often lack the expertise and resources to transition basic research to the commercial market, while large businesses view nanotechnology as too high a risk. This gap complicates the development of nanotechnology products. As research transitions to the marketplace, the technology undergoes several evaluations and validations. Researchers initially create a proof of concept and validate it in the laboratory environment. Then, they must validate that concept as being relevant outside of the laboratory environment, and develop prototypes to show function in an operational environment. Until researchers can demonstrate that a product has functional relevance, investors will consider any investments high-risk. A federal and Commonwealth government-seeded prototyping center would bridge this commercialization gap, by assisting in the transition of research into an operational product.

    Time is of the essence. Other states and countries currently are investing billions of dollars in nanotechnology companies, education, and commercialization. JCOTS recommends continued discussion among all interested parties and plans to continue such discussion. Competition is increasing and the Commonwealth cannot afford to fall behind, nor can it afford to move too slow.

    This summary constitutes the final report for HJR 120. More in-depth information will be available in the 2005 JCOTS Annual Report.