Nanotechnology, in Israel and around the world, could be called a “verge” technology — as in, “it’s on the verge of breaking out into many industries, and revolutionizing them,” according to Israel’s Chief Scientist, Avi Hasson. Speaking exclusively to The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the NanoIsrael 2014 conference in Tel Aviv, Hasson said that after almost a decade of painstaking research, “we in Israel are ready for the next level – the widespread commercialization of nanotechnology.
“Actually, that term is a bit misleading,” Hasson said. “It’s not just a technology – but a platform that many businesses will use in the coming years to make better, more efficient, and more effective products.”
For example, the car battery selected as Nano Product of the Year by a panel of judges at the event, including Rafi Koriat, a co-chair of the conference who heads Academic and Industry Cooperation at the government-sponsored Israel National Nanotechnology Initiative (INNI), which sponsored NanoIsrael 2014. The battery, made by Volta, contains carbon nanotubes (CNTs) that prevent pulverization of silicon in batteries, which shortens their lifespan. Using the CNTs, “you get more energy and better conductivity of energy at the same time,” said Koriat. “With the CNTs, car batteries can last three times longer than the ones currently on the market.
“This is an industry that has not had an innovation for maybe 50 years,” Koriat said, adding that he had pushed the other judges to vote for the battery. “Actually, I have one installed in my own car, and it works great,” he said.
Agreeing with Hasson, Koriat said that the nanotech revolution was already here, “and it’s revolutionizing many industries. For example, nanotech is being used to develop fire retardant products for the home, and nano-sensors are able to detect whether or not food has been infected with bacteria, in real time.” That, he said, would be a breakthrough for the food industry; today, the only way to determine problems with tainted foods is to do a bacteria culture, with results coming back only 24-36 hours later. With nano-sensors, the bacteria — its type, prevalence, and potency — can be determined on the spot.
Several thousand people attended NanoIsrael 2014, which included lectures, discussions, and demonstrations on using nanotech to regenerate bones, improve eyesight, heating technology based on nanotech. There was even an exhibition of “Nanoart,” which features nanolandscapes (molecular and atomic landscapes, which are natural structures of matter at molecular and atomic scales) and nanosculptures (structures created by manipulating matter at molecular and atomic scales using chemical and physical processes).
Often misunderstood, “nanotechnology” refers to chemical, not gene, manipulation (although that could be an effect). In nature, said Koriat, “there are known chemical structures for atoms, with specific atoms joining to create an object — a table or chair, for example. In nanotechnology, you take atoms that are usually not paired or joined, and use them to create something new — like materials that are stronger, but lighter, than the materials currently in use.”
Such materials interest companies in many industries such as textiles, furniture manufacturers, and the auto industry, with defense and medicine perhaps the furthest along in developing real-world applications for the innovations developed by nanotechnology research. In fact, the defense industry — both Israel’s and America’s — played a prominent role in NanoIsrael 2014, with a day-long session dedicated to discussing how the technology is being used in projects that are expected to make soldiers safer, allow planes to fly further with less fuel, and make explosives more precise and safer to handle.
Among the speakers at the defense session was Dr. Jeffrery W. Baur, head of the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate at the US Air Force Research Laboratory. Nanotech, he said, was being used in the Air Force to develop protective gear, weapons systems that are more resistible to wear and tear, and to cut down on energy use (the Air Force, he said, was America’s single biggest energy consumer). Speakers from Israel Aircraft Industries, Israel Military Industries (Rafael), Elbit, and others presented projects that they expected to commercialize within the next few years.
Nanotech is not without its problems, however – largely connected to the slow road to commercialization. There are precious few venture capital firms who understand nano, said Ofer Du-Nour and Nir Davison, whose Capital Nano has invested in three early stage nanotechnology companies that are based on research emerging from Israeli universities. “The technologies we chose,” in the medical and environmental areas, “are proven technologies. The only issue is the engineering to bring the products to market,” said Du-Nour. “We cherry-picked through thousands of companies to find these.”
One reason for that cherry-picking, said Davison, was because not all the technologies were “ready for prime time. Nanotechnology research has been going on for some time, and until now it has really been academic-oriented. But we are definitely seeing a change,” he said. “More technologies are ready for the market, and there are more partnerships than ever between academia and industry on nanotechnology projects.”
That collaboration is one of the Israeli nanotech industry’s strengths, said Nava Swersky-Sofer, head of INNI and a conference co–chair. “In the past six years, 206 nanotechnology start-ups have sprouted in Israel, many of them in coordination with Israeli research centers,” she said. “Since 2006, there have been 7,000 academic papers on nanotech published in Israel, 15% of them in collaboration with industry. We have more commercialization of nanotechnology going on here than anywhere else.”
That commercialization, Swersky-Sofer said, would most likely come first in the medical industry. “People don’t realize, but Israel is the pioneer in nanotech drugs. Doxil, a drug delivery system, was developed at Hebrew University decades ago and was approved by the FDA in 1995.” Hundreds of papers and projects were presented at NanoIsrael 2014 on medical issues, said Swersky-Sofer, and many of them were well on their way to commercialization. “An industry like nanotech has to start from somewhere, and I think we are doing a great job of bringing this research to the right commercialization track,” she added.
With commercialization comes interest from big companies, said Hasson, and they too were represented at NanoIsrael 2014. “We have people here from Merck, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, and many others,” Hasson said. “One of the major reasons they come is because of the research, but add to that our proven capabilities in entrepreneurship, and you have a winning combination that is going to be attractive to multinationals and investors around the world. We’re just at the beginning of this revolution.”