Nanotechnology Research Directions for Societal Needs in 2020: Retrospective and Outlook

Subject Area:
Non-NNI Other Reports
Author: Mihail C. Roco, Chad A. Mirkin, & Mark C. Hersam
Publication Date: Sep. 30 2010


Nanotechnology is the control and restructuring of matter at the nanoscale, at the atomic and molecular levels in the size range of about 1 to 100 nm, in order to create materials, devices, and systems with fundamentally new properties and functions due to their small structure. The 1999 “Nano1” report Nanotechnology Research Directions: Vision for Nanotechnology in the Next Decade described nanotechnology as a broad-based, multidisciplinary field projected to reach mass use by 2020 and offering a new approach to education, innovation, learning, and governance—a field expected to revolutionize many aspects of human life.7 Nanotechnology can profoundly affect the ways we live, how healthy we are, what we produce, how we interact and communicate with others, how we produce and utilize new forms of energy, and how we maintain our environment.

Ten years have passed since that first “Nano1” U.S. National Science and Technology Council report on the prospects for nanotechnology. During this past decade, research and development in nanotechnology has made astonishing progress and has now provided a clearer indication of its potential. This new report (“Nano2”) examines the last decade’s progress in the field and uncovers the opportunities for nanotechnology development in the United States and around the world in the next decade. It summarizes what has been achieved with the investments made since 2000, but more importantly, it describes the expected targets for nanotechnology R&D in the next decade and beyond and how to achieve them in the context of societal needs and other emerging technologies.

The Nano2 report incorporates views of leading experts from academia, industry, and government shared among U.S. representatives and those from over 35 other economies in four forums held between March and July 2010. These began with a brainstorming meeting in Chicago (United States) and included U.S.-multinational workshops in Hamburg, Germany (involving European Union and U.S. representatives); Tokyo, Japan (involving Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and U.S. representatives); and Singapore (involving Singapore, Australia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and U.S. representatives). Participants came from a wide range of disciplines, including the physical and biological sciences, engineering, medicine, social sciences, economics, and philosophy.

This report documents the progress made in nanotechnology from 2000 to 2010 and lays out a vision for progress in nanotechnology from 2010 to 2020, in four broad categories of interest:

1. Methods and tools of nanotechnology for investigation, synthesis, and manufacturing

2. Safe and sustainable development of nanotechnology for responsible and effective management of its potential; this includes environmental, health, and safety (EHS) aspects and support for a sustainable environment in terms of energy, water, food, raw materials, and climate

3. Nanotechnology applications for advances in biosystems and medicine; information technology; photonics and plasmonics; catalysis; and high-performance materials, devices, and systems

4. Societal dimensions, including education, investing in physical infrastructure, and governance of nanotechnology for societal benefit
This report is addressed to the academic community, private sector, government agencies, and generally to nanotechnology stakeholders. It aims specifically to provide input for planning of nanotechnology R&D programs to those producing, using, and governing this emerging field. Significant examples of nanotechnology discoveries and achievements since 2000 and the goals to 2020 are listed in Table I near the end of the chapter, arranged according to the aforementioned four categories. In addition, four sidebars II-V graphically illustrate several high-impact applications of nanotechnology (in electronics, biomedical and catalysts) and U.S. infrastructure investments to support progress in nanotechnology as of 2010.

The broad consensus of forum participants is of strong progress since 2000 in the following areas.

  • The viability and societal importance of nanoscale science, engineering, and technology applications have been confirmed, while extreme predictions, both pro and con, have receded. Advancements in scientific foundation and physical infrastructure were inspired by the 1999 unifying definition and vision of “Nano1.”
  • Nanotechnology has been recognized as a revolutionary field of science and technology, comparable to the introduction of electricity, biotechnology, and digital information revolutions. Between 2001 and 2008, the numbers of discoveries, inventions, nanotechnology workers, R&D funding programs, and markets all increased by an average annual rate of 25 percent. The worldwide market for products incorpoincorporating nanotechnology reached about $254 billion in 2009 (Figure I, Chapter 13).


To see the workshop slides and videos, visit

Nanotechnology Fact

Nanoscale materials have been used for over a millenium. For example, nanoscale gold was used in stained glass in Medieval Europe and nanotubes were found in blades of swords made in Damascus. However, ten centuries passed before high-powered microscopes were invented, allowing us to see things at the nanoscale and begin working with materials at the nanoscale.

Nanotechnology as we now know it began about 30 years ago, when our tools to image and measure extended into the nanoscale. Around the turn of the millennium, government research managers in the United States and other countries observed that physicists, biologists, chemists, electrical engineers, optical engineers, and materials scientists were working on overlapping issues emerging at the nanoscale. In 2000, the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was created to help these researchers benefit from each other’s insights and accelerate the technology’s development.

To learn more, see What is Nanotechnology?

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