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Rod MacGregor, a high-tech entrepreneur, runs NanoMuscle, an Antioch, Calif., company that makes 3-in. motors suitable for everything from power windows to dolls with nuanced facial expressions. "I like to be on the wave of the next insanely great thing," he says. His motors work because the alloy nitinol can assume different shapes as its temperature fluctuates. An electrical current causes a nitinol wire in the device to shorten, allowing the linear motor to contract like a human muscle but at 1,000 times the strength. That's a simple task but an important one, and one MacGregor believes can reach markets worth $3.8 billion. The NanoMuscle, which costs less than $1 to make, qualifies as nanotech, the company says, because of the size of its nitinol crystals, not the wire or motion. MacGregor compares his product to $40-to-$100 small motors made by potential competitor RMB, of Biel-Bienne, Switzerland. Hasbro, a major investor in MacGregor's start-up, expects to deliver its first nano-powered toys by Christmas 2003. NanoMuscle's challenge, like InMat's, will be to stay afloat long enough to sign companies on as clients.
Like MacGregor, Greg Schmergel is a serial entrepreneur. If his company, Nantero, in Woburn, Mass., is successful, it will eventually add about five minutes to everyone's day. The company wants to build an "instant-on" computer that doesn't need to boot up.
In a year, Nantero expects to produce a commercial prototype for a chip with "nonvolatile random-access memory" (NRAM), which means its chips won't forget how to run all its programs when the power is switched off. The technology uses arrays of 2-nm strands of carbon atoms, called carbon nanotubes, that convey electrons faster than copper and are 100 times as strong as steel at a fraction of the weight. Pairs of tubes store data by locking together when a current runs through them and stay together even when the computer power is switched off and back on. The tubes remain linked until separated by a countercurrent, so their memory is retained. And these chips have other advantages. Schmergel says that within three years, Nantero can bring to market chips with nram that can store 10 times as much data as a silicon chip the same size while operating faster and with less heat. "They're not saying much publicly about their approach," says Steven Glapa, president of the nano-consulting firm In Realis, "but what they're promising sounds pretty breathtaking."
Nanotubes could be the first commodity in the nanotech economy. Dozens of companies around the world already pump out mounds of the stuff affectionately called soot and sell it to some of the world's largest companies and labs for research: IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung and NEC. Nano-Lab, in Brighton, Mass., is one of the few nanotech companies turning a profit. It sold $200,000 worth of made-to-order nanotubes in 2001 and is on track to more than double that amount this year. Last week HP researchers unveiled a way of manufacturing molecular-scale circuitry that will be cheaper and use less power than current silicon chips and have the potential to store entire libraries of information.
Professional athletes won't find Richard Smalley's soccer balls quite as novel as Harris Goldberg's tennis balls. In fact, without an atomic-force microscope, they won't find them at all: the naturally occurring structures are composed of just 60 carbon atoms. Yet Smalley's discovery is expected to help treat aids, cancer and Lou Gehrig's disease, and it earned him and two colleagues the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
These molecular structures are called fullerenes, or buckyballs, in honor of the American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. Smalley sits on the board of C-Sixty, a biotech company that builds fullerenes into molecules that researchers hope will attach to and deactivate hiv molecules and blow up cancer cells on cue. "Buckyballs are not quite like nanosubmarines that target deadly diseases"--as seen in the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage--"but because of their size and shape, they are well suited for drug discovery," says Stephen Wilson, co-founder of C-Sixty, based in Houston.