AKO, Hyogo Pref. — In many ways a typical science lab, it is difficult for an outsider to see what goes on at Himeji Institute of Technology’s Laboratory of Advanced Science and Technology for Industry — at least with the naked eye.

Shinji Matsui, professor at Himeji Institute of Technology, explains the operation of a Focused Ion Beam machine, a key device that can work on materials on a nanometer scale.

“We are trying to do things on a very small scale,” professor Shinji Matsui said with a smile, adding that the researchers work with micrometers (one-millionth of a meter) and nanometers (one-billionth of a meter).

Nanotechnology is an emerging field that deals with the manipulation of matter on molecular and atomic scales. A nanometer compared with a meter is akin to a tiny marble compared with a planet.

Possible applications include electronics, biotechnology and medicine, and nanotechnology is expected to become a fiercely contested area of global industrial competition in the 21st century.

Experts believe nanotechnology may have an even greater impact on society than information technology or genome analysis. In many industrialized countries, the new discipline is attracting keen attention from governments, businesses and academics.

Although Japan has been a forerunner in the field thus far, the United States and Europe are swiftly catching up.

In January 2000, then U.S. President Bill Clinton unveiled the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which named the new discipline as Washington’s next major strategic field, following IT and biotechnology.

Clinton earmarked $500 million for nanotechnology research and development, and set specific targets, such as creating a memory device about the size of a cube of sugar that can store all the information in the national library.

Amid intensifying global competition, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has designated nanotechnology as a key strategic area of focus for strengthening the fundamentals of the industrial sector.

“Nanotechnology is still on a research level, but it is a key area Japan can take advantage of in coming years,” Matsui said. “In the field of energy, for example, nanotechnology could dramatically boost energy efficiency by controlling chemical reactions on a molecular and atomic level.”

While the word nanotechnology has come under the spotlight in recent years, the original concept dates back to 1959, when U.S. physicist Richard P. Feynman aired the possibility of developing electronic circuits on a nanometer scale and of creating new materials by modifying molecular compositions.

As Feynman noted, nanotechnology has advanced with the development of semiconductors, which consist of ultra-thin layers of electronic circuits.

New materials have also been found during nanotechnology research. In 1991, a researcher at Tokyo-based electronics maker NEC Corp. found what later came to be known as a carbon nanotube, a cylindrical object made of carbon atoms with a diameter of just a few nanometers.

Research into using the tiny conductive tubes in future-generation microelectronic devices has since progressed. Concerning elements other than carbon, several new phenomena have also been observed on the nanometer scale.

“Advancement in nanotechnology research and development does not confine itself to the development of semiconductors or the discovery of new materials,” Matsui said. “It has become possible to work on materials with unprecedented precision.”

In December, Matsui, in collaboration with NEC and Seiko Instruments Inc., a Chiba-based precision instrument maker, unveiled new technology to make three-dimensional structures on a micrometer scale by using a gallium ion beam just 7 nanometers in diameter.

To demonstrate the technology, the joint team fabricated a carbon wine glass just 12 micrometers high with an external diameter of 2.75 micrometers. It is smaller than a human red blood cell, which has a diameter of about 8.5 micrometers.

The team also produced a carbon “nanodrill,” a tiny spiral with a diameter of 0.1 micrometers. The device has possible applications in bioengineering, for example, where it could be used to drill through cellular tissue.

“With this three-dimensional technology, we will be able to develop in the near future a number of key devices in the areas of electronics, biotechnology, medicine and so on,” Matsui said. “Such devices include a health-care chip, which can extract all necessary health information from a single drop of blood.”

The joint project is considered one of the few successful projects in the new field. Currently, businesses, academia and the government have been trying to cooperate in promoting nanotechnology research and development.

On the business side, the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren) issued a key report in March that says nanotechnology is a major tool to boost Japan’s expertise in IT, biotechnology, energy, industrial materials and so on.

Titled “n-Plan 21,” the report underscores the need to intensify nanotechnology research and development under cross-sector cooperation so new discoveries can be elevated to a practical stage in five to 10 years.

“To this end, we need to concentrate investment in areas where Japan can gain the upper hand over foreign competitors,” the report says. “We also need to set study fields of high priority from a standpoint of nanotechnology’s social impact as well as from its technological potential.”

Some of Japan’s leading industrial companies have already launched nanotechnology research with the aim of cultivating new business opportunities.

Synthetic fiber maker Toray Industries Inc. plans to spend 5 billion yen on a nanotechnology lab at its pharmaceutical research lab in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, where it will attempt to combine its expertise in nanotechnology and biotechnology, company officials said.

Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. has also established a nanotechnology research center, which has been tasked with analyzing atomic and molecular structures, and conducting research on synthesizing methods in a bid to create new materials, company officials said.

A number of national universities, including the University of Tokyo, Osaka University and Tokyo Institute of Technology, plan to establish nanotechnology research institutes this year and next year.

The government likewise is lending weight to the nanotechnology research drive.

In the fiscal 2001 budget, the government earmarked 10.6 billion yen, up 253.6 percent from the previous year, to fund nanotechnology research at national universities and state-affiliated research institutes.

For the next fiscal year, ministries including the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology are both expected to request more funding for nanotechnology.

“Although the framework of cooperation among businesses, academics and the government is being formulated in the nanotechnology field, Japan should quickly see visible results from such cooperation,” said Susumu Takahashi, chief economist at Japan Research Institute. “In terms of transforming new technology into business opportunities, Japan is lagging far behind the U.S.”

According to the Keidanren report on nanotechnology, the scale of related businesses in Japan may expand to 27 trillion yen by 2010.

To this end, Keidanren said firms should focus on “flagship projects” to achieve tangible results in the short term while continuing basic research in the long run.

Takahashi, however, said fundamental reform is needed for Japan’s research and development system, pointing out that increasing research funds alone will not nurture industrial strength.

“Unlike the U.S., Japan has a traditional problem of preventing business ventures from taking shape,” Takahashi said. “To secure a competitive edge in nanotechnology and other emerging fields, deregulation should be further promoted so that exchanges of ideas and technological expertise can become possible across various industrial sectors.”

Nanotechnology expert Matsui echoed similar concerns.

“On the academic side, many researchers are still in the ivory tower, with little interaction with other study fields,” he said. “I believe this has made their studies only fund-consuming and unlikely to lead to practical use.”

Matsui expressed concern that cooperation among the public, private and academic sectors may not work under current economic conditions, which have driven many firms to scale down their research and development programs as part of corporate restructuring.

“A true technological breakthrough cannot be achieved without basic research, which requires continuous, long-term investment,” Matsui said. “The question is whether triangular cooperation can maintain such investment until new discoveries are elevated to the business stage.”

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