Nanotechnology moves beyond sci-fi to commercial fact
IMAGINE SOMETHING THAT’S one-billionth of a metre long. Something so tiny it’s inconceivable to the average human but that in the field of nanotechnology – which operates in the realm of billionths of a metre – is becoming a major field of scientific endeavour.
Lance Abramson, an attorney focusing on patent law regarding to nanotechnology for Spoor & Fisher, says that Government’s emphasis on nanotechnology should provide impetus for research and development in this field in SA.
Online encyclopaedia Wikipedia explains nanotechnology is all about controlling matter on a minute scale and manufacturing devices on that same length scale. It’s a highly multidisciplinary field, cutting across many areas of science, including chemistry, applied physics, materials science and mechanical and electrical engineering. In essence, science uses nanotechnology to create material and devices from molecular components that can assemble themselves chemically using principles of molecular recognition.
There are many applications for nanotechnology, such as in new kinds of food, medical devices, chemical coatings, personal health testing kits, sensors for security systems, water purification units for manned spacecraft, displays for hand-held computer games and highresolution cinema screens.
Though a new field, the commercial applications are already generating billions of US dollars, especially in the nanoelectronics field. For example, R&D has generated new types of biochips to treat life-threatening conditions,
including cancer and heart diseases.
Abramson says that the ability to manipulate atoms on this scale will eventually replace all many traditional labour methods, as products are produced at the atomic level by nanotechnology assemblers and replicators. “There’s a very real possibility that in our lifetimes we’ll see the use of nano-robots programmed to attack cancer cells without harming the surrounding tissue.”
He says that while many other jurisdictions have recognised the value of nanotechnology – and scientists and developers have been quick to patent their discoveries and inventions – SA has unfortunately fallen behind.
In October 2004, the US Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO) announced the creation of a new classification for nanotechnology, being Class 977, with 263 subclasses. That allows examiners and inventors to search nanotechnology patents more easily. A search at the USPTO in this class shows more than 2 600 granted patents and another 600 or so published pending applications.
In Europe, a nanotechnology working group has been created at the European Patent Office to examine such patents and an interdisciplinary nanotechnology tagging system implemented to identify patents falling under the nanotechnology definition used by industry and government funding programmes.
“In comparison, the number of patent applications for nanotechnology has been a mere trickle in SA,” says Abramson. He says there are two possible explanations: that not much R&D is being conducted in SA and – more likely – many people involved in nanotechnology aren’t aware of the extent to which they can protect their work.
“It’s very important to consider patenting nanotechnology inventions, as without that protection anyone can exploit your intellectual property. At the end of the day, so much R&D relies on the kind of funding that’s only possible with patent protection.”
for nanotechnology have been a mere trickle in SA. Lance Abramson