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Nanosensors Could Mean Big Business

The global nanosensor market will grow to $17.2 billion by 2012, according to research firm NanoMarkets, but it must overcome technical barriers to connect to other sensor networks.

Nanotechnology deals with devices measured in increments of one-billionth of a meter. Tiny nanosensors in the sub-micron range are sensitive to detect just a few molecules of a substance.

In the short term, expensive nanosensors will be used where the benefits justify their high cost, said NanoMarkets analyst Lawrence Gasman. "At the moment, they're not cheap, but they could become cheap over time," Gasman said. "So groups of buyers that have the capacity to buy these things now have to be willing to spend money in order to get very fine levels of sensing."

For example, nanosensors' ability to detect at the molecular or even atomic level could allow them to detect the onset of cancer or heart disease -- an extremely valuable capacity. Gasman expects the market for biomedical nanosensors to reach approximately $800 million in 2008 and $1.2 billion in 2012.

"Implantable machines in the body that keep your heart beating will not happen next year, but they're no longer science fiction," Gasman said.

In a report released on Tuesday, Gasman forecast that, after biomedicine, military and homeland defense applications would be the biggest growth areas. Nanosensors will be used to detect the presence of biotoxins, such as anthrax and smallpox, as well as radioactive materials. He projects such uses to make a market of $827 million in 2008 and $3.9 billion in 2012.

Gasman included both conventional sensors that use nanomaterials as the sensing material and true nanosensors that utilize nanoelectronics in his analyses. Many of today's nanosensors, he said, are small devices with a coating of nanomaterial that does the actual sensing.

As the cost of nanosensors drops, Gasman said, they'll find their way to other industrial sectors. "If you go further enough out, the biggest single sector starts to become industrial applications for the chemical and energy industries. They have a fairly strong incentive for monitoring a lot of things," he said.

The ability of nanosensors to detect very small amounts of a material could help chemical plants quickly detect leaks before they turned into lethal spills, for example.

If nanosensors could be tied into RFID infrastructures, a meat packer could, for example, combine information from nanosensors showing that a meat shipment was free of contamination with information from RFID in the supply chain to show where the meat was shipped.

Nanosensors very much have a place in pervasive and ubiquitous computing, where there are lots and lots of sensors that interface with computer systems via wireless, he believes. But interfacing with the rest of the world is one of a number of areas that still are retarding the nanosensor market, Gasman said.

"We [as humans] interface with the world at the macro level, and most electronic infrastructure interfaces at the micro level. That's an issue for nanosensors," he said.

But the challenge of connecting nanosensors to other sensor networks, Gasman said, is not trivial, because of their physical properties. For example, nanosensors made from carbon tubes have distinct electrical properties, which makes it difficult to put them on a silicon chip that can interface with microelectronics.

An even bigger issue, he said, is manufacturability.

"Nanotechnology potentially will offer cost declines in sensor technology," he said. "If these things could be built at a certain cost, there's little doubt that the aerospace, industrial and robotics sectors would take these things up. The problem is getting over the technical hurdles on the way to doing that and going to volume manufacturing."



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