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Putting Nanomanufacturing in Context

Posted on June 03, 2014
Nanomanufacturing is bringing innovations from research on nanotechnology, the “science of the small,” to commercial markets and mass manufacturing. Nanotechnologies such as targeted chemotherapy (which would limit difficult side effects for cancer patients), or concrete that lasts longer and “heals” itself of damage, could dramatically affect society and the economy. As part of GAO’s mission, we assess technological innovations that affect society, the environment, and the economy. Last year, we convened a forum to look at the uses of nanotechnologies, the manufacturing challenges inherent in producing those technologies, and how these challenges may affect U.S. global competitiveness going forward. We recently released a summarized version of the report on the forum. Listen to a podcast with GAO Chief Scientist Tim Persons on the highlights of the forum.   To develop the forum report, we invited experts from government, nonprofits, academia, and industry who are on the cutting edge of nanotechnology to participate in the forum. Forum participants provided insight into our assessment of the ways that nanoscale (picture a very tiny fraction of the width of a hair) materials can lead to new products. Nano Graphic 1 og: image

Excerpted from GAO-14-406SP

Nanotechnologies that enable powerful battery-powered vehicles, for example, are potentially very significant in terms of future market expansion, as shown in the graphic below. As demand for products that include nanotechnologies increases, the process of moving these technologies from research labs to global markets will become more competitive. In addition, mass manufacturing and large-scale use of these technologies may have unanticipated environmental, health, and safety implications.

Excerpted from GAO-14-406SP

Furthermore, our forum experts identified a funding gap that can slow the manufacturing and innovation processes here in the United States. After government- and university-supported early stages of research, small and medium-sized U.S. businesses face what forum participants called the “missing middle” (as shown below). At this point, the absence of funding can prevent U.S. innovators from continuing to develop the nanomanufacturing methods and processes needed to prepare for commercialization, major industry investment, and competition in mass markets.

Excerpted from GAO-14-406SP

In May, our Chief Scientist, Timothy Persons, testified on these nanomanufacturing issues at a congressional hearing. The testimony outlined three main approaches to these challenges:
  1. reviewing and renewing policies that undergird U.S. innovation;
  2. supporting public-private partnerships that address U.S. funding gaps as these apply to either manufacturing in general, or potentially, nanomanufacturing; and
  3. defining a vision and strategy for achieving and sustaining a high level of U.S. competitiveness in nanomanufacturing.
The anticipated benefit in pursuing such approaches is to chart a favorable course for the global economic position of the United States in the 21st century.
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