One industry that claims it’s been in nanotech for decades is the computer chip industry where experts say we're already enjoying the fruits of the nanotech revolution. And while there are tiny players in the field you probably haven't heard of yet, one company claims $20 billion of its annual revenue already comes from nanotech.
At the center of this innovation is a molecular chip, no bigger than a human blood cell, that is one of the nano building blocks of the future. These tiny devices, some measured in atoms, could lead to monumental advances in biology, healthcare and electronics. Experts say chips and their design are the single most promising sector of nanotechnology.
“Twenty billion dollars of our revenue is from nanotechnology,” said Sean Doyle, who as Capital Sector director at chip giant Intel Corp. identifies the most promising advances in nanotechnology and then whips out the company’s checkbook to invest. “Virtually everything that we do involves nanotechnology.”
The most promising area for nanotechnology, analysts say, is in chip making: design, manufacturing, and research. As electronics get smaller, the chips powering them must also shrink. But those shrinking microprocessors have to be more powerful and run cooler and faster. And researchers have always feared that the laws of physics -- the physical space between one transistor to the next -- would ultimately lead to the end of innovation. It’s been dogging the chip industry for years: scientists call it hitting the "red brick wall."
“Companies like Intel are looking at the picks and shovels, the tools that will enable the research to make the breakthroughs,” said Doyle.
In the chip-making world of the future, microprocessor makers will likely use carbon nanotubes instead of transistors to make chips smaller and more powerful.
“There's a lot of work going on in carbon nanotubes and some other exotic devices which may be the next technology that takes us to new levels of speed and performance,” said Agilent Technologies CEO Ned Barnholt.
Agilent is spending millions to develop ways to test and measure these new chip's performance to see if they'll actually do what designers want them to do. Once the chips work, a tiny company called Quantum Polymer hopes to come in. The company is re-arranging molecules to extend the capabilities of the microprocessor beyond the physical limits of all known semiconductor manufacturing techniques. Using the technique, a tiny piece of gold is covered with a thin plastic film. But this plastic film contains hundreds of thousands of wires which could be used to connect chips to circuit boards.
“There's a roadblock in the semiconductor industry,” said Quantum Polymer CEO Stephen Nett. “As chips get smaller, the cost of attaching them has become both a technical and commercial obstacle."
These innovations at the molecular is helping developers incorporate technology into everything from smart clothing to roofing tiles infused with solar cells that can power the home they’re covering.
“There's a lot of promise and I think a lot of opportunities out there,” said Barnholt.
“We can walk around today with a cell phone and understand the benefits of smaller, cheaper, faster,” said Nett. “It wasn't obvious at the beginning of that revolution. I think the same is true of nanotechnology.”
So far, nanotechnology's promise is outpacing its delivery. But even if the one thing nano does is extend microprocessor design and development, it will solve the industry's single most vexing problem, keeping innovation in that industry alive and well.
(CNBC's Jim Goldman and Candice Tahi contributed to this story.)