Friday, July 14, 2006

GE Gets Small

Another timely reminder of why nanotechnology should be on investor's radar screens.


General Electric Team Shines Light On Nanotechnology's Huge Potential



Posted 7/12/2006

One of the biggest of the big, General Electric, (GE) is making a big bet on the science of the remarkably small — nanotechnology.

Margaret Blohm manages 50 people in GE's advanced technology program for nanotech. The corporate research center serves all of GE's business units, with a special focus on high-risk, long-term research.

GE has a long history of being on the leading edge of technology, says Blohm, who joined the company in 1987.

"Pretty much our whole business is differentiated by materials, either to make better scanners, appliances or aircraft engines," she said. "There's no way to lead the way without the best technology."

One nanometer equals one billionth of a meter. Matter and energy display unusual properties at that super tiny scale. Scientists are exploiting nanotech to create new materials that are much lighter yet stronger than standard metals or ceramics.

Nanotech already is used in such consumer products as tennis rackets, sunscreens and auto body parts. Manufacturers, chemical makers, agribusinesses and the military are pursuing a slew of other nanotech applications.

Health care firms say nanotech research could unlock new drug therapies and cancer treatments. At the same time, inventors — and investors — hope to create clean nanotech fuel cells to curtail the use of fossil fuel.

Blohm holds more than 10 U.S. patents, with a specialty in the chemistry of polymers. She recently spoke with IBD about GE's ambitions in nanotech.

IBD: How do you explain nanotechnology to nonscientists?

Blohm: Nanotech involves anything at the length scale of a billionth of a meter. The technology is based on that size because you see a lot of surprising behavior at that length scale.

We have to re-examine the laws of physics to understand what's going on. When scientists find something so unexpected, it's like a gold mine because of the opportunities to do new things that were never imagined before.

IBD: Why is GE so interested in nanotech?

Blohm: We view nano as the ultimate materials science. It allows us to do new things we couldn't have done before. We know that nanotech is going to be disruptive across all parts of our business, so we have to be in nano.

IBD: What are your top research priorities?

Blohm: The biggest areas for us are in health care and energy. In terms of health care, we have a whole spectrum of work around diagnostics and hardware. We're trying to build better instruments for CT scanners and MRI equipment.

In chemistry, we're in what we call the wetware diagnostic area. This involves imaging agents that are used in conjunction with that equipment. Diagnostic imaging agents look at nanoparticles that are less than 10 nanometers in size.

The goal is to make diagnostic imaging that can demonstrate a disease at an earlier state. We might be able to look at a tumor earlier to determine if it is malignant. We want to improve the ability and speed of disease diagnosis, without doing invasive surgery.

IBD: Have you made any breakthroughs?

Blohm: Yes. We do lots of in-vitro studies to look at what types of particles work in imaging. We want to see if they're compatible with different types of disease cells.

One day this guy came into my lab with a picture showing the uptake of our nano particles into the diseased cells, and not anywhere else. That is, the particles went into diseased cells specifically, not the healthy ones. This could help doctors spot problems much earlier.

On that day we immediately knew we could make this work, and it was very exciting. It's still research with plenty of ups and downs. But it's great when you can really make a difference in people's lives.

IBD: What are the most promising areas in nanotech for clean energy?

Blohm: We're looking at making our equipment run more efficiently, with better lightweight materials. We're also looking at alternative energy, mostly around solar power, but also wind power. We're using nanotech to improve solar power. With nano structures in photovoltaic cells, we can improve the efficiency and lower the cost.

IBD: How might nanotech be used for materials science — say, to make lighter GE turbines or stronger jet engine parts?

Blohm: We're re-engineering common bulk materials such as metal alloys. Steel, for instance, is a natural nano composite. When its particles cool, they give it strength, but they're not thoroughly stable.

That's why we want to create new nano structures for alloys. This will allow for improved strength at higher temperatures. It means you can run an engine hotter and still make it stronger and lighter.

IBD: Is GE applying nanotech for any security or military purposes?

Blohm: We're doing some work in sensing, but it's relatively small compared to our efforts in health care and energy.

We're doing detection for biological and chemical agents, with a variety of nanomaterials and particles. Nano sensing is enabled by having such a small size with a high surface area. There's a lot of nanotech work being done around the world now on bio sensing for germ warfare.

IBD: Should we be concerned about the relative lack of regulatory oversight — or even public awareness — as nanotech spreads into many consumer and industrial goods?

Blohm: We're doing all that we can to help the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and other government agencies to effectively and appropriately regulate the field to ensure the safe use of nanotech.

One point to make, though, is that nanotech is not new. We've been using nano safely for decades. Car tires have nanoparticles of carbon that make them appear black. GE has also used nanotech for several products in hard coatings, but we just never called it nano.

Of course, now we have more different materials coming out at a much greater volume. So we need to continue safe practices and extend them and be aware of the many risks.


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