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Nanotechnology will require sustained investment over at least the next decade, as well as more commercial applications, if it is to deliver on its initial promise.

Nanotechnology, which is the design and manufacture of extremely small electronic circuits and mechanical devices built at the molecular level of matter, has been touted as an emerging sector for some time now, but a white paper published on Thursday has said that the technology is over-hyped and a long way from delivering on its full potential.

According to the report, which was published by investment firm 3i in association with the Economist Intelligence Unit and the UK-based Institute of Nanotechnology, nanotechnology is at the heart of applications that are making money, but it has not made the impact it should have in areas such as pharmaceuticals, clothing and artificial bone.

To remedy the situation, the report called for increased investment in the technology over the next 10 to 20 years from governments. While the report noted that governments in Japan, the US and Europe have increased their financial commitments to the area, it said that more money needed to be pumped into the sector, particularly in Europe.

According to a survey of leading nanotechnology entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and organisations, the US is a leading player in all nanotechnology areas, Japan is considered the global leader in electronic applications of nanoscience, while Germany is set to take the lead in chemical applications. The UK is regarded as of one of most sophisticated developers of medical/pharmaceutical devices.

The report also recommended that the commercial sector should invest more heavily in the technology. However, it found that the biggest stumbling block to commercial nanotechnology developments was finding the right uses for the technology. Over a third of respondents to the survey said that recognising and discovering commercial applications of the science were the main roadblocks to nanotechnology progress.

"Nanotechnology companies need to be crystal clear about the commercial benefits they can offer," said the report. "These include either new products with innovative functionality or improvements to existing products through faster and cheaper processes."

It also said that nanotechnology start-ups should partner with larger companies in order to ensure the delivery of projects they can't achieve on their own, and recommended they bring in business people to "inject commercial reality into the science."

The survey also showed that a third of respondents believed that smart paints, pigments and coating sectors show the most promise commercially over the next five years. But, the report warned that the idea that nanotechnology can fix everything would lead to a backlash against it.

"Nanotechnology is a valuable and essential emerging technology," said Ian Lobley, director at 3i. "It is capable of providing the differentiating technology upon which to base a wide range of exciting, fast-growth business opportunities." He added that 3i believed the technology had a lot of potential and had indeed supported some businesses in the sector.

A nanometer is one billionth of a metre. This is so small that three to four atoms can fit inside a nanometer. Nanotechnology is about building things atom-by-atom, molecule-by-molecule and potential uses include the development of stronger and lighter materials, nanobots that can explore the human body at a microscopic level, and shrinking massive amounts of information on to miniscule microchips. © ENN

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