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Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter, for practical purposes, on the scale of atoms and molecules—called nanoscale. One way to view nanotechnology is not as an industry in its own right but rather as a general-purpose technology, like electricity and computing, that is used in many industries: basic chemicals, cosmetics, agriculture, food manufacturing, electronics, instrumentation, bioengineering, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and many others.
On the other hand, nanotechnology can be viewed as an industry if the focus is kept on activities that advance the knowledge of nanoscale materials and how they can be used. People in many occupations do this kind of research and development work. Scientists and technicians are uncovering the principles that govern the properties of materials at nanoscale. They have discovered the principles of nanoscale building blocks—cubes, spheres, sheets, and tubes—and how to assemble these parts or coax them to assemble themselves. They are also increasing our understanding of how to mimic the processes that living things accomplish at nanoscale. These research findings are being applied to solve practical problems by engineers and engineering technicians. Properties such as electrical conductivity, water resistance, catalysis (sparking a chemical reaction), emission of light, and tensile strength can be put to countless uses in industrial products and processes.
News and projections about the dollar value of the industry are often distorted by being based on the total sales figures for products containing nanomaterials rather than solely on the value of these component materials. For example, a can of paint priced at several dollars may incorporate only a few cents' worth of nanoparticle pigments. Also these sales figures apply to industries that use nanoenhanced products and do not measure the volume of business in the nanotechnology knowledge industry itself.
Nevertheless, to appreciate the growing impact of nanotechnology research and development, it helps to observe the premium prices commanded by products that incorporate nanomaterials. For example, a can of Wilson tennis balls with a nanomaterial coating sells for 35 percent extra. A pair of Dockers khakis with a stain-resistant nanoscale coating sells for a 15 percent premium.
An even better indication of the size of the nanotechnology industry in the U.S. is the amount of public and private funding of research in the field, which expanded from $370 million to $3.7 billion between 2000 and 2008. Over that same period, investments by venture capitalists grew from $170 million to $1.2 billion, the number of scientific papers about the subject grew by 55 percent, and the number of patents grew eightfold. In 2014, Lux Research reported that governmental and private investment in the nanotechnology industry had reached $18.5 billion in 2012.
The various government agencies that are encouraging the technology are funded and coordinated by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). The agencies receiving the largest investments are the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and National Institute of Standards and Technology. NNI has come under some criticism, however, because it has the conflicting missions of both encouraging and regulating the industry, somewhat like the Nuclear Energy Commission in the early years of atomic power.