Nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, often referred to simply as “nanotechnology,” is the understanding, characterization, and control of matter at the scale of nanometers, the dimension of atoms and molecules. Advances in nanotechnology promise new materials and structures that are the basis of solutions, for example, for improving human health, optimizing available energy and water resources, supporting a vibrant economy, raising the standard of living, and increasing national security.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is a coordinated, multiagency effort with the mission to expedite the discovery, development, and deployment of nanoscale science and technology to serve the public good. Established in 2001, the NNI comprises the collective activities and investments of participating agencies with diverse missions and presently a total annual investment of ~$1.5 billion. These activities are coordinated through the efforts of the interagency Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee and with the support of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO).
Thanks in large part to the NNI, fundamental science and engineering related to nanotechnology has advanced rapidly. Understanding materials and processes at the nanoscale has the imminent potential to enable innovation in areas that are of commercial interest and of national priority.
This report is the triennial review of the NNI called for by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-153). The ad hoc Committee on Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative
convened by the National Research Council1 was guided by the following statement of task.
- Examine and comment on the mechanisms in use by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to advance focused areas of nanotechnology towards advanced development and commercialization, along with the approaches taken to determine those focus areas and to implement the NNI’s Signature Initiatives. If warranted, recommend possible improvements.
- Examine and comment on the physical and human infrastructure needs for successful realization in the United States of the benefits of nanotechnology development. Consider research and development, product design, commercialization, and manufacturing needed both to advance nanoscience and engineering and to grow those portions of the American economy that are spurred by advances in nanotechnologies. If warranted, recommend possible improvements.
Following an overview of the NNI (Chapter 1), this report addresses part A of the statement of task, that is, NNI mechanisms to advance focused areas of nanotechnology toward advanced development and commercialization, with particular attention to advancing nanomanufacturing (Chapters 2 and 3). The report goes on to address part B of the statement of task, evaluating and recommending improvements in the physical and human infrastructure (Chapters 4 and 5) to support not only nanotechnology research but also private sector innovation. The following sections summarize the report and highlight the key findings and recommendations that the committee believes can significantly improve and guide the NNI going forward.
FOCUSING THE NATIONAL NANOTECHNOLOGY INITIATIVE
In order to better assess NNI efforts to advance focused areas of nanotechnology toward development and commercialization, the committee considered the process of innovation more broadly. Technology-based innovation is the process of converting the results of basic science and engineering research into practical applications for commercial and/or public benefit. It is the outcome of a complex set of interconnected technological activities that (1) involve an ecosystem of participants and institutions from the public and private sectors and (2) require expertise in various areas and disciplines.
Technological activities that culminate in innovation range from basic and applied research to product design and development, to scaled-up manufacturing. Innovation can be an evolutionary improvement to existing products or revolu-
1 Effective July 1, 2015, the institution is called the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. References in this report to the National Research Council are used in an historical context identifying programs prior to July 1.
tionary advancements that enable entirely new products and even new industries. Whether evolutionary or revolutionary, there are many paths that innovation can follow; it can result from the “push” of new ideas emerging from research toward development and application, or from the “pull” of new solutions to industry-defined needs and challenges.
The federal government is the primary sponsor of basic research, whereas the private sector invests more heavily in product development and manufacturing. Federal agencies have established a number of programs aimed at pushing the ideas resulting from basic and applied research to a stage where traditional private sector investment is available. These programs, while not specifically aimed at nanotechnology, can—and in some cases already do—support the commercialization of NNI-funded research.
The NNI currently employs two mechanisms to focus on areas of national importance. Nanotechnology Signature Initiatives (NSIs) are multiagency initiatives designed to focus a spotlight on technology areas that may be more rapidly advanced through enhanced interagency coordination and collaboration. There five current NSIs are in nanomanufacturing, nanoelectronics, nanotechnology knowledge infrastructure, sensors, and sustainable water. In 2016, the NSI on solar energy was retired. Goals for each NSI are outlined in a white paper,2 but without more detailed plans and adequate resources, progress will lag.
A second, new mechanism the NNI is using to focus on areas of importance is Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges. These are ambitious but achievable goals that will harness nanotechnology to solve national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination. The first such Grand Challenge, announced in 2015, is the Grand Challenge for Future Computing, which envisions “a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.”3 As the title suggests, the Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges will depend on advances in areas beyond nanotechnology. Therefore, the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee members will not have the entire expertise, programmatic influence or control, and resources to support the full breadth of research that is needed to achieve the grand challenges.
Conversely, the success of other initiatives, such as the Department of Energy’s SunShot program on solar energy, the White House Innovation Strategy to Build
2 Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Committee on Technology, 2010, Nanotechnology for Solar Energy Collection and Conversion, http://www.nano.gov/sites/default/files/pub_resource/nnisiginitsolarenergyfinaljuly2010.pdf.
3 Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2015, A Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge for Future Computing, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/10/15/nanotechnology-inspired-grandchallenge-future-computing.
a Sustainable Water Future, the White House Precision Medicine Initiative, the White House Materials Genome Initiative, and the White House Manufacturing Initiative’s Manufacturing Innovation Institutes, depend on continued progress in nanotechnology, even though the managers leading those initiatives may not have deep knowledge in the nanoscale. The NNI participating agencies have the capability to support the nanotechnology-related aspects of these initiatives that are relevant to the agencies’ respective missions.
Finding: The NNI is investing in technology areas that are critical to the goals of other federal initiatives, and vice versa. The various initiative leaders and managers both inside and outside of the NNI may not have the entire expertise or programmatic influence or control to efficiently achieve their respective initiative goals. (Chapter 2)
Recommendation: The Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology Subcommittee should strengthen engagement with the leadership of other high-priority initiatives in order to determine critical nano-enabled technological dependencies. The subcommittee then should focus NNI efforts to address those dependencies. (Chapter 2)
In addition to the mechanisms in use today, innovation incentive prizes are a means for focusing efforts on solving targeted problems. This approach complements the traditional process of awarding funding. Existing nongovernmental organizations that manage innovation prizes have established methodologies for developing and managing such competitions.
A focus area related to advanced development and commercialization of nanotechnology that warrants special attention is nanomanufacturing. Research on the manufacture of nanoscale materials, devices, and structures is key to realizing the benefits of nano-enabled technologies.
Nanomanufacturing also is an area that is integrally related to other high-profile initiatives focused on advanced manufacturing, in particular the Manufacturing Innovation Institutes (MIIs) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia (AMTech) program. MIIs are public-private partnerships with substantial federal funding that focus on a particular area of advanced manufacturing, developing new processes and educating skilled workers. MIIs bridge the funding gap between fundamental research and commercialization. The AMTech program supports existing or new consortia to develop roadmaps for research and development in areas of advanced manufacturing in addition to those that are the subject of MIIs. Connections between the NNI and advanced manufacturing programs such as the MII program and AMTech can accelerate progress toward the goals of those programs.
Finding: In many cases, progress or success in the MIIs and in implementation of the roadmaps developed under the AMTech program will require advances in nanomanufacturing. (Chapter 3)
Recommendation: NNI-participating agencies should explicitly support the early-stage (technology readiness level 1-3) nanomanufacturing research needed to enable the roadmaps and goals of current advanced manufacturing programs, in particular the existing Manufacturing Innovation Institutes. (Chapter 3)
Recommendation: The Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology Subcommittee should form a nanomanufacturing working group to identify nanoscale research needs of advanced manufacturing, coordinate efforts between the NNI and the federal programs focused on advanced manufacture, and foster greater investment by those programs in nano-enabled technologies. (Chapter 3)
PHYSICAL INFRASTRUCTURE FOR NANOTECHNOLOGY
The NNI agencies have built a substantial publically accessible infrastructure for nanoscale research and development, such as the NIST Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST). This infrastructure comprises both physical and computational tools, including characterization and fabrication facilities, as well as online simulation and education resources. The existence and quality of these infrastructure resources are key factors in reducing barriers to discovery and technological innovation, and in developing and retaining the nation’s science and engineering talent pool. The agencies managing these resources need to plan for renewal of instrumentation and equipment in future years.
Finding: There is a clear lack of identified funds for the development of new leading-edge instrumentation or recapitalization of commercial tools at NNI-sponsored user facilities, with the exception of CNST. As a result, there is a real risk of obsolescence of the physical and computation infrastructure available to the nanoscience and technology research enterprise and a corresponding decrease in the user value. (Chapter 4)
Recommendation: The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy should identify funding mechanisms for acquiring and maintaining state-of-the-art equipment and computational resources to sustain leading-edge capabilities at their nanoscale science and engineering user facilities. (Chapter 4)
The growth in basic research and development at the intersection of nanotechnology and biology requires infrastructure with specialized capabilities for the synthesis and characterization of complex and hybrid materials and structures. The ability to reliably manufacture such complex nanomaterials at scale poses novel challenges. As increasing numbers of nanomaterials and nanotechnologies are developed for medical and other applications that involve contact with the body or the environment, there also will be a need to establish standards and guidelines for assessing and managing risks to the environment, health, and safety.
The National Cancer Institute’s Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL), with support from NIST and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has developed tiered analyses and provides data that help both developers and the FDA in the assessment of the safety of nanoparticles for cancer therapeutics and diagnostics. This demonstrated approach could be expanded to address nanomaterials for other medical applications. NCL also could be expanded or replicated to develop standard analyses and provide information at an early stage of development of nanomaterials in general, for assessment of potential risks to humans and the environment. Such tools and methods would greatly improve risk assessment capabilities of both developers and regulatory agencies, ultimately expediting responsible commercialization.
Along these lines, the FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) in Jefferson, Arkansas, is the site of a new nanotechnology core facility. The facility serves the needs of NCTR by supporting nanotechnology toxicity studies, developing analytical tools to quantify nanomaterials in complex matrices, and developing procedures for characterizing nanomaterials in FDA-regulated products. Unlike the NCL, however, these facilities are not accessible to commercial developers. In addition, the 2017 NNI budget includes Consumer Product Safety Commission funding for a new nanotechnology center at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to conduct research in exposure and risk assessment of engineered nanomaterials in consumer products. Access by commercial developers to this center has not been established.
Finding: The NCL serves as a trusted source of information on the safety of nanomaterials being developed for cancer and has facilitated FDA assessment. However, there is a lack of centralized facilities for addressing other areas of nanomedicine and nanobiotechnology. (Chapter 4)
Recommendation: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) should assess what emerging medical applications, in addition to cancer diagnostics and treatment, rely on engineered nanomaterials. NIH should expand the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory to address nanomaterials being developed for these emerging medical applications. (Chapter 4)
Recommendation: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Environmental Protection Agency should join with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to support development of centralized nanobiotechnological characterization facilities, at the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory or elsewhere, to serve as trusted sources of information on potential environmental, health, and safety implications of nanomaterials. (Chapter 4)
HUMAN INFRASTRUCTURE FOR NANOTECHNOLOGY
Human capital, and the infrastructure required to produce it, is essential to the realization of the full value of nanotechnology advances. The nanoscale science and engineering education ecosystem must have sufficient breath to address not only the education of future nanoscale science and engineering researchers, but also, for example, business and government leaders who can make informed decisions to accelerate the adoption of nano-enabled technologies, workers with skills needed for nanomanufacturing, and a public that is sufficiently knowledgeable to make informed decisions on the benefits and risks. To achieve such a broad swath of goals, it will be necessary to address all the stages of education, including K-12, post-secondary (community colleges, undergraduate, and graduate), worker training and re-training, and informal education. A 2015 NSF-funded workshop report Nanoscale Science and Engineering Education (NSEE)—The Next Steps4 provides a suite of recommendations toward that end; the committee endorses the workshop report.
NNI investment in research leads naturally to incorporation of nanotechnology principles in higher education. Incorporation of nanotechnology at the K-12 level will be increasingly helpful in preparing students for post-secondary education and also can serve to excite and interest students in the study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines in general. However, incorporating nanotechnology in K-12 curricula is challenging. The Commonwealth of Virginia has led in the development of a model for including nanotechnology in its state Standards of Learning; this model is worthy of assessment and adaptation by others.
Education curricula vary from state to state and even at the classroom level. Educators at all levels can benefit from access to materials developed by others. The NNI supports not only the development of educational materials, but also supports platforms for sharing such information.
4 J. Murday, 2015, Nanoscale Science and Engineering Education (NSEE)—The Next Steps, http://nseeducation.org/2014-documents/NSEE%20The%20Next%20Steps-Final.pdf.
Finding: The NNI has funded the development of a diversity of formal and informal educational materials suitable for various levels and ages. Nanotechnology-focused educational programs at universities around the country, some of which have received substantial state funding, also are developing materials for K-12 students and teachers. (Chapter 5)
Recommendation: NNI-funded researchers and others who have developed educational materials should be required to deposit the information content on the nanoHUB.org website and to explore affordable commercial availability for laboratory and classroom demonstration materials. (Chapter 5)
In summary, the NNI, including the interagency bodies and the NNCO, continues to add value to the portfolio of activities across participating agencies. Looking ahead, the NNI can significantly increase that value by focusing on both basic and applied research that will enable progress and success in other advanced technology areas of priority, especially advanced manufacturing. At the same time, the NNI agencies are called on to sustain investment in and facilitate access to physical infrastructure and to take steps to realize the full value of educational materials and programs. In the course of identifying areas in which to focus, NNI agencies have the opportunity to consider the goals of the initiative and the criteria for continuing to invest resources in its coordination and management.