Nanotechnology the topic of global technology roundtable
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01/30/09 Seán Kinane
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This morning at St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater, executives from five weapons and technology companies, some with connections to the Tampa Bay area, discussed the future of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology involves engineering on a very small scale. Most nanotech products are on the order of about 100 nanometers.

But just because a technology is small doesn’t make it nanotech. The properties or functions of the system must change at those small scales.

James Burns, senior vice president of Genzyme Corp. says nanotech will become more important in medicine both by improving disease diagnosis and through drug delivery in personalized medicine. Burns says the bulk of medical nanotechnology advances will come in oncology. One way is through in vivo quantum dot imaging where tiny particles that are placed in a patient will bind to specific cells or proteins and emit colored light when irradiated.

Quantum dots can also be used as a lighting source, with the color dependent on the size of the particles, according to David Myers, a vice president at RTI International. Using quantum dots for lighting, Myers says, is one of three examples of how his company is using nanotechnology to increase energy efficiency.

Quantum dots can produce the same amount of light as a 60 watt incandescent light bulb or a 14 watt compact fluorescent bulb by only using 6 watts of power, according to Myers.

Representatives from two nanotech companies with ties to St. Petersburg create technology for weapons systems. Raytheon Co. has two Florida locations, St. Pete and Largo, where they produce communications technology for the military, according to vice president of corporate research and development John Zolper. He says the company had $21 billion in sales in 2007 and sales of $23 billion in 2008. Zolper spoke about Raytheon’s use of nanotechnology for electro-optic windows on missiles, radio frequency electronics for communications, and referred to a diagram of micro electrical mechanical systems (MEMS) for their military customers.

Controversy has surrounded Zolper’s company in recent years because of groundwater contamination in St. Pete’s Azalea neighborhood that originated from the nearby Raytheon plant.

Another weapons and technology company coming to Tampa Bay is Draper Laboratory. It was lured by millions of government dollars, including $6 million from the Hillsborough County Commission for a lab at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus.

James Shields, president and CEO of Draper, says they focus on defense, space, biomedicine, and energy, including inertial navigation systems for missiles and using nanotech to make electronic chips smaller.

Draper began at MIT, but in 1970, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, divested itself of Draper because of protests from faculty, students, and members of the anti-war community of Draper’s role in the U.S. war against Vietnam. Draper moved off campus in 1973. Shields says that Draper is developing small power sources using “nuclear sources in terms of putting a radioactive isotope and using that as your battery.”

Curtis Carlson is president and CEO of SRI International which is building a new facility in St. Petersburg. He emphasized teaching innovation to students of all ages. Carlson suggests there are two reasons why there has only been one initial public offering of a company in the last 18 months in the United States. One is that there is too much federal regulation and another is the government’s crackdown on immigrants.

Carlson quoted the president of Stanford University who said that 10 years ago three-quarters of students from China studying in American universities stayed here after graduation, while now three-quarters of them move back to China. Carlson responded to the question of whether the country invests enough in research.

The nanotechnology roundtable was organized by the Tampa Bay Partnership.

Previous WMNF coverage of Raytheon

Previous WMNF coverage of Draper

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