Small science yields big growth

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Nanomaterials have evolved from innovation to application — and the career possibilities have blossomed.

Carbon-nanomaterial researchers had plenty to celebrate this autumn. In October, Rice University in Houston, Texas, threw a gala to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the discovery of the football-shaped carbon molecule buckminsterfullerene by Rice researchers. Physicist Andre Geim at the University of Manchester, UK, had planned to attend, but his plans got derailed after he and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov won the Nobel Prize in Physics the week before the gala for their work on graphene, the one-atom-thick sheets of carbon that they produced in 2004 by peeling off layers of graphite with adhesive tape. It was a busy week for nanomaterials innovators.

It has been a busy 25 years. The discovery of buckminsterfullerene in 1985 sparked a revolution in materials science and nanotechnology. That excitement was soon extended to carbon nanotubes, the mechanical and electrical properties of which suggested myriad uses. Now, these nanotubes are fulfilling their promise.

Rod-shaped graphite nanocrystals are strong, stable electrical conductors with many potential uses. Credit: Y. GOGOTSI/SPL

The maturation of the market for nanomaterials opens up job opportunities at all stages of commercialization — in academia, start-up companies, small businesses and large chemical manufacturers. Nanomaterials are finding their way into products such as photovoltaic cells, high-power batteries and advanced drug-delivery systems, and are creating opportunities for applications in industries from electronics and data storage to energy and biomedicine. Scientists with a strong interest and the right skills should find ample career possibilities.

Industrial Opportunities

Within the past two years, chemical suppliers such as Bayer in Leverkusen and BASF in Ludwigshafen, both in Germany, have begun manufacturing carbon nanotubes in bulk for industry. Most commonly, the tubes are mixed into polymers or metals to create strong, lightweight composites. Companies including Nanocyl in Sambreville, Belgium, and Nanocomp Technologies in Concord, New Hampshire, specialize in commercial nanotube production. The market is now estimated at US$247 million worldwide, and is set to grow to $2.7 billion by 2015, according to http://nanoposts.com, a nanotechnology consultancy in Stirling, UK. “A lot of nanotechnology applications have been in research space, but we're now seeing a progression into the commercial space,” says Michael Strano, associate professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. This evolution and the projected future revenue and demand tell a promising story for job potential.

Companies all over the world are working on better ways to scale up production and chemically modify nanotubes for specific purposes. The tubes' mechanical strength makes them an obvious ingredient for composites, and the earliest applications involved mixing them into polymers to create strong, lightweight materials used in the automotive and aerospace industries, and in sports equipment. By volume, such uses still command the largest demand for nanotubes, says Daniel Resasco, founder and chief scientist of SouthWest NanoTechnologies in Norman, Oklahoma. Resasco's company has been on a hiring spree over the past year, adding 14 people to its staff, including three PhD chemists, three chemical engineers with bachelor's degrees, one technical chemist and a programme manager with an MBA.

Only a few universities offer interdisciplinary degrees in nanotechnology; they include the University of Washington in Seattle, the National University of Singapore and the University of Copenhagen (a list is available at http://go.nature.com/ciel5z). The field is still “highly disciplinary”, says Strano, with researchers holding degrees in chemistry, physics, materials science and chemical or electrical engineering. But no matter what degree they pursue, all aspiring nanotube researchers would do well to take a course in solid-state physics — “the heart of nanotechnology”, says Strano. “These materials are defined by the underlying physics,” he adds.

That training will apply to all areas of nanotechnology, not just carbon nanotubes. “Graduates with a strong background in catalysis, interfacial chemistry and nanotechnology will be sought by companies, universities and national labs,” says Resasco. The ability to manipulate nanomaterials using electron microscopes and characterize them using spectroscopic techniques is essential for a growing suite of positions. “Working in nanomaterials,” says Resasco, “you start developing a way of thinking that's more precise, more atomic-oriented than the typical microscopic research of two decades ago.”

Many Rice graduates take postdoctoral positions, but “we have been sending more PhDs directly to industry than ever before”, says Wade Adams, director of the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at the university. In the past few years, oil and gas service companies such as Baker Hughes, Halliburton and Schlumberger, all based in Houston, have begun hiring nanotechnology graduates from Rice. The companies are “starting to see how nanotechnology is going to make a difference to them in the future” by developing better catalysts for oil refining, hardening drill bits and improving materials used in natural-gas recovery, says Adams. Graduates also find jobs in small businesses and start-ups that specialize in nanotechnology. In the Houston area alone, more than 20 such start-ups have opened their doors within the past two years, says Adams.

Daniel Resasco: "People with flexibility and a broad set of skills are highly valued." Credit: J. RESASCO

Although good jobs lure many graduates right out of university, postdoctoral research experience can benefit careers in both academia and industry. Many national laboratories do nanotechnology research and collaborate with university groups, says Resasco. “That is great, because they have tremendous infrastructure and facilities,” he notes. A postdoc position, Resasco adds, allows a graduate to broaden his or her experience — important in a multidisciplinary field. Resasco has hired PhD graduates with physical chemistry degrees who also had postdoctoral experience in chemical or electrical engineering. “We find this breadth of knowledge particularly useful. Many nanotechnology companies are relatively small, and people with flexibility and a broad set of skills are highly valued,” he says.

Even as the commercial promise generates opportunities, basic research continues to interest universities (see 'Nanotechnology and the environment'). Graphene has become the new hot material; it is easily manufactured, flexible, strong and an excellent electrical conductor. It has been on the scene for only six years, and researchers are actively exploring its potential. According to a 2009 analysis by Lux Research in New York City, graphene is set to compete with nanotubes in price and performance in the coming years as a component of composites, coatings and energy-storage devices, and the market for it is projected to grow to $59 million by 2015.

With plenty of scientific and technical challenges ahead, and so much money at stake, there should be lots of opportunities opening up. “The job market is awesome for nanotech researchers because we just don't have enough scientists — even at the master's and undergraduate levels,” says Vincent Caprio, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance trade organization, based in Skokie, Illinois. “All these companies are hiring people.”

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Wu, C. Small science yields big growth. Nature 468, 589–590 (2010) doi:10.1038/nj7323-589a

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