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Nanotech: mini-science, mega-potential

NEW YORK -- Investors don't need an electron microscope to find nanotechnology stocks. They can just look at some of the high-tech stocks they already hold.

Large technology companies, including International Business Machines Corp., Intel Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Co., have been researching and using nanotech for years.

Nanotech, or science at the atomic scale, is already reshaping the way tech products are made and the way they work. As these industries -- semiconductors, printing, and storage -- reach size limitations, they are turning to nanotech to further shrink or improve their products.

For now, nanotech is an evolutionary force. It has created smaller microprocessors, better ink for printers, and hard disks that can store more data. But over the next 10 to 20 years, nanotech bears on its tiny shoulders the promise of new gadgets, such as 3-D printers that produce organs.

''Nanotechnology is incredibly important, because if we don't do this work, we're not making the breakthroughs necessary," says Stephen Nigro, who leads a group developing technologies for HP's Imaging and Printing division.

In HP's laboratories, engineers are using nanotech to improve how ink interacts with paper and the materials within the ink jet printhead. HP is also ''looking at new areas in the future that have nothing to do with printing today," Nigro says.

Some of today's ink jet printers already work on the nanoscale and are capable of delivering drop sizes as small as 10 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter or about one millionth the size of a pin head.

Xerox Corp. sees nanotech improving toner, the ink used in most forms of copying and printing, says Herve Gallaire, the copier and printer maker's chief technology officer. Nanopigments are brighter and resist fading better than traditional pigmented inks.

Xerox, Eastman Kodak Co., and others are replacing traditional toner with nano-sized particles that are bundled together into larger molecules. These particles are more uniform in shape and color than conventional toner. They promise better quality color machines that cost little more to operate than monochrome printers currently on the market.

Scientists at the largest chipmakers, including Intel, IBM, and Texas Instruments Inc., have also worked on nanotech projects for years and see them as a way to continue to reduce the size of transistors.

''We have been continuously decreasing the feature size on chips for decades," says Rob Willoner, a technical analyst at Intel. ''The main thrust of Intel's work in nanotech is continuing shrinking."

The Semiconductor Industry Association, a trade group, recently issued a call for the industry to coordinate a ''massive" research effort surrounding nanotech.

George Scalise, president of the association, says that once traditional chip making reaches the 10 nanometer level, it will run up against limitations.

''When you get down to the 10 nanometer range, you'll reach a point where you only have few atom layers for insulation," he says. Although that roadblock is about 15 years out, Scalise says the industry needs to address it today.

Most chip makers spend a fraction of their R&D budgets, which reach the billions, on nanotech projects. A large portion of their research dollars is targeted toward nearer-term payoffs, but there are several forward-looking projects.

For example, IBM researchers are working on nanomaterials that can assemble themselves in a pattern on a semiconductor, which would reduce the cost and complexity of making chips. Today, a manufacturer has to continually put down and remove materials on the silicon to create a pattern.

In the storage field, nanotech is old hat.

''While many people have been talking about the future of nanotech, we've been shipping nanotech in products for a number of years," says Currie Munce, a vice president of research at Hitachi Ltd., which makes hard drives.

Hard drive manufacturers such as Hitachi and Seagate Technology Inc. have been spurred by an ever-increasing appetite to pack more information into tighter and tighter spaces, and they have for years worked on the nanoscale.

Another relative nanotech veteran is Fuji Photo Film Co., which uses extremely thin coatings and magnetic particles in its archival tapes.

In Seagate's computer hard drives, the head that reads and writes data is typically only 12 nanometers away from the spinning disk, the magnetic layer is 10 to 20 nanometers thick, and the coating and lubricants amount to about five nanometers.

IBM has demonstrated a device, known as the Millipede project, with a data storage density of a trillion bits per square inch, the equivalent of 25 DVDs on a surface the size of a postage stamp. Rather than storing data by electronic or magnetic means, it uses nano-sharp tips to punch tiny indentations representing individual bits into a thin plastic film.

Another advantage of nanotech is that the smaller the device, the easier it is to make it shock absorbent.

''We've just announced that we're bringing out a one-inch hard drive that you can literally throw against the wall and it continues to run very well," says Mark Kryder, Seagate's chief technical officer.

Several start-ups, including Nantero Inc. and ZettaCore Inc., have staked their futures on developing nanotech-based memory that combines the lack of moving parts present in solid-state memory with the persistence of hard drives and tapes. So far, their research hasn't yielded widely marketed products.

Although currently focused on using nanotech to improve existing products, most big tech firms see a role for it in the avant garde. Among the jaw-dropping things they are watching: researchers who have found that printing out new skin for a burn victim is as plausible as printing out a resume.

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