A crash course in nanotechnology

Legislator learns from tech company about science of making things small

By Robert Elder Jr.
Tuesday, July 29, 2003

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, who good-naturedly mocked himself as a failed physics major, took an advance course in the subject Monday at the North Austin headquarters of Nanotechnologies Inc.

Nanotechnologies president and CEO Randy Bell briefed Smith, R-San Antonio, on the company's commercial and government initiatives for nanoparticles, extremely small particles that can be 1/5,000th the width of a human hair. The company specializes in the production of nanopowders made from pure metals such as aluminum, silver and gold.

The 25-employee company's main focus is on corporate partnerships. It signed development agreements in June with Air Products and Chemicals Inc. and French optical company Essilor International SA, a leader in corrective lenses. Nanotechnologies makes optical coatings for eyewear.

Air Products also made an undisclosed investment in the company. Before its investment, Nanotechnologies had raised $10.3 million from investors. The company also has key government projects in its sights.

Nanotechnologies has been supplying free nanoparticles, for instance, to a Brooks Air Force Base laboratory in San Antonio for use in detection of chemical and biological agents. The research aims to use nanoparticles to detect, capture and destroy harmful agents such as anthrax. The work could lead to more common applications, including detecting and eradicating mold in houses, Bell told Smith.

"We see this as having huge, huge value," Bell said.

    Other government work includes:

  • A $300,000 contract for advanced weapons research for the U.S. Army's Tank-Automotive and Armament Command's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center. The company works on the use of nanopowders for explosives, among other things.
  • Research on enhanced kinetic energy weapons under a $500,000 subcontract with the University of Texas' Institute for Advanced Technology in Austin and the U.S. Army.
  • Supplying nanoenergetics material to the research and development programs of the departments of Defense and Energy.
  • Smith, best known in Congress for his work in the 1990s tightening immigration policies, has turned his attention to high tech in recent years. Smith represents West Austin and western Travis County, sits on the House Science Committee and is chairman of the House Judiciary's Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property.

    Smith said he'd make it a priority to ensure that federal dollars continue to flow to nanotechnology projects.

    "People have the idea that these applications are 10 years away," he said. "It's not. It is now. There is almost infinite commercial potential" in nanotech, as well as critical defense applications in weaponry, equipment and combat clothing.

    Nanotechnology is an emerging field with a broad array of applications, including health care, electronics and the military.

    Nanotechnologies makes silver nanopowder for use in life sciences applications such as anti-microbial activity. The company recently received a $25,000 grant from the U.K.-based World Gold Council to explore uses of nanoparticles in scientific and disease research.

    Bell, the CEO, said the company seeks government contracts only when they can "create long-term value."

    "We're in government predominantly because they tend to lead in the tech arena and have a long-term appetite" for funding projects, Bell said. Government is "another avenue for strategic partnerships."

    relder@statesman.com; 445-3671