Government ups nanotech funding

A new DTI-funded organisation is to fund nano- and microtechnology projects to the tune of £40m, to drive ahead the UK's nanotech sector

The Department of Trade and Industry is to spend £40m over the next few months to fund nanotechnology projects, as part of a programme to build up the promising sector in the UK.

Last week, the UK Micro and Nanotechnology (MNT) Network, through which the DTI is funding the technology, called for a first round of funding applications, saying it planned to spend up to £15m initially, depending on the quality of submissions. The DTI is calling on organisations such as public and private companies, universities and research institutions to apply for funding before 2 December. Further calls will be made in February and August of next year.

The MNT Network is part of the UK's attempt to build up industrial capability and technical expertise in nanotechnology, which is an area that many believe will dominate future generations of IT, industry and medicine. The US is also investing heavily in nanotechnology research, having recently approved £1.5bn in funding over three years.

Each of the UK's 12 Regional Development Agencies and Devolved Administrations have representatives managing the MNT Network, in an approach designed to combine a national strategy with a focus on local knowledge and existing facilities. The DTI said it is planning to build on existing capabilities rather than create new projects from scratch.

Funded projects will be expected to give open access to their technology to other businesses and researchers, with the idea being to push research and commercial application ahead while making sure researchers are not duplicating one another's work.

Nanotechnology refers to working with materials in the 1- to 100-nanometre range, in a process that could create useful new substances, aid in medicine, and accelerate computer development. Nanotechnology's proponents hope to revolutionise the way manufacturing works. Instead of grinding, milling and sawing materials through inefficient, top-down processes, materials would be manipulated at the molecular level.

In June, the first 10GB nanotechnology memory (NRAM) device was built in the laboratories of Boston-based Nantero. The device used carbon nanotubes a billionth of a metre in diameter sprinkled onto a silicon wafer, and was designed to combine the speed and price of dynamic memory with the non-volatility of flash. Such devices could evolve into a universal memory device that the industry hopes will replace all other types.

Scientists at IBM Research have discovered a new way to force carbon nanotubes to emit light, which could eventually lead to advances in fibre-optic technology. Hewlett-Packard is trying to develop molecular circuits for chips. Intel, among other companies, is also investigating nanotech.

The US in May agreed to channel a large amount of funding into nanotech, despite some qualms over whether the technology could ultimately prove dangerous. The Nanotechnology Research and Development Act budgets $2.36bn (£1.48bn) over three years, an average of $787m annually, for nanotechnology research and grants to universities and private corporations. This is less than the White House's request for $847m next year, and about 10 percent more than the current level of federal spending of $774m.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.