Nan­otech­nol­ogy moves be­yond sci-fi to com­mer­cial fact

Finweek English Edition - - Spoor & fisher -

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.”

Pa­tent ap­pli­ca­tions

for nan­otech­nol­ogy have been a mere trickle in SA. Lance Abram­son

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