Getting real about nano: Interview with Dr Alec Reader, NanoKTN

For too long, nanotechnology has been a victim of its own hype, something the director of the NanoKTN would like to remedy. Paul Fanning reports.

The word 'nanotechnology' for many is associated with futuristic visions, while others understand it as a technology that, while it may be significant in the future, for the moment remains out of reach in terms of design. As director of the NanoKTN (Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network), Dr Alec Reader is keen to dispel these perceptions, both of which he blames on an excess of hype that greeted this apparently revolutionary technology when it first appeared. "I think we all suffered from that," he says. "10 or 15 years ago there was an enormous amount of hype and it really went out of control. I think about 15 or so years ago, the hype went up to a peak and then five years ago, it went into a trough because nothing seemed to be happening. Things have picked up again recently, but expectations are much more realistic. It's not science fiction hype anymore, it's real, practical and commercial solutions to everyday problems. The application areas are more realistic now. This is normally how technology advances." And advance it has. According to Dr Reader. the NanoKTN has three areas of focus in the UK where it believes the country has a strong nanotechnology base that it can exploit. These are: medical technology; ICT hardware and engineering applications such as automotive, aerospace and defence. Dr Reader points particularly to developments in medical applications as areas where nanotechnology is offering practical, real world solutions. "Things like sensors and other devices can be already be applied directly to patients in their own home to monitor various things such as glucose or insulin levels or even more simple things such as monitoring older people in their own homes rather than have them in costly hospitals or care homes. Putting devices on elderly people to ensure that they're still moving or to monitor heart rate or blood pressure remotely over a mobile phone connection is perfectly possible." Reader also points to companies starting to sell very specialised kits that can be set up in a GP's office that can take a drop of blood into a microfluidic device and analyse it there and then – again saving money for the NHS. In the engineering sphere, Dr Reader points out that nanomaterials have been used for many years, saying: "There are a lot of applications in aerospace such as coatings on fuselages. These are essentially just very sophisticated paints, really, but they reduce drag and resist heat. Equally, within turbines, you can put various nano coatings in there as well. That's not new and has been going on a while, but most people simply aren't aware of it." Of course, with increased use comes an increased subjection to regulation and, in this regard, nanotechnology is no exception. As Dr Reader points out, any substance over one tonne is subject to REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & restriction of CHemicals ) and nanomaterials are having to jump through all these hoops along with everything else. This can be a difficulty in such a relatively new field, of course, but even this is providing opportunities. Says Dr Reader: "One of our member companies [NanoSight] is growing at 200% a year because they've developed a piece of equipment that measures the size and shape of free nanoparticles. And they're doing brilliantly out of that. They've got the instrument and application-specific software to do it worldwide and are contributing to the UK's balance of payments." For all these advances, however, Dr Reader is insistent that people's feet should remain firmly on the ground with regard to nanotechnology. He doesn't see nanotechnology becoming an off-the-shelf solution for industry any time soon, saying: "I think it will generally remain limited to bespoke or niche solutions for the most part… Individual issues will arise and nanotechnology will deal with them… We should dispel any public perception that nanotechnology's going to be everywhere and be doing everything. That's great for science fiction, but it's not the real world." Dr Reader has over 30 years' experience in the micro and nano-electronics industries, working most recently at Innos and Polymer Vision. He is accredited with establishing Innos at the forefront of industrial R&D. His tenure at Innos (Polymer Vision) was a continuation of a successful career that includes prominent positions as International Marketing Manager and Head of Department at STMicroelectronics and Business Line Manager at Philips Analytical (Semiconductors).