By Tom Still

MADISON – Be honest: Everything you know about nanotechnology is from that GE television ad in which the nerdy professor meets the super-model, and within the space of about 30 seconds they fall in love, get married and produce a nerdy baby wearing eyeglasses.

Don’t feel left out, however, if you have trouble chatting about “nano” over your neighbor’s backyard grill. The field of nanotechnology is so new that many insiders have trouble keeping track. That’s a primary reason behind the Thursday, June 3, conference on bionanotechnology – an exciting convergence of two fields – at the UW-Madison College of Engineering.

First, a definition: Nanotechnology is a catch-all description of activities at the level of atoms and molecules that have applications in the real world. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair. Viewed another way, a nanometer is about 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom.

Nanotechnology is a platform for advancing other sciences. It is the science of defining, fabricating and synthesizing materials, devices and systems that have features and functionality at the nanometric (molecular) scale. The applications in genetics, industry, robotics, artificial intelligence and physics are so vast that scientists believe they’re only now scratching the surface.

Some nanotechnology applications have already found commercial use. Nanoscale materials are being used in products as diverse as sun-blocking lotions, plastics, lubricants for heavy machinery, tennis balls, computer displays, paneling on cars and men’s pants.

The range of potential uses has been expanding rapidly as researchers discover valuable and sometimes unexpected results by shrinking common materials, thus building in extra strength and flexibility, or new electrical and optical properties. In Wisconsin, there’s even a company – NPoint – that specializes in manufacturing nanopositioning systems for nanotech tools.

“It is at the nanoscale that the real chemical, electrical and optical properties of things are determined,” explained UW-Madison Engineering Dean Paul Peercy. “It’s a fundamentally different way of looking at materials, and it’s ultimately going to affect every man-made product.”

Most recently, nanotechnology and biotechnology have begun to intersect. The convergence of these two high-tech fields with their large base of academic research supported by extraordinary growth in federal R&D budgets is opening new commercial avenues. These range from health care to energy production to environmental protection and beyond.

Thursday’s one-day meeting, the Second Annual Wisconsin Nanotechnology Conference, will provide an introduction to the field and explore some of the commercial opportunities that are emerging from the “nano plus bio” research base at UW-Madison and nationally.

“Bionanotechnology is a dimension of nanotechnology where the state has great potential,” said Larry Casper, an assistant dean at the College of Engineering and a conference organizer.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Jeffrey Schloss, is a national expert in applications of nanotechnology in health care. A leader in nanotechnology at the National Institutes of Health, Schloss is active in the national Nanotechnology Initiative and is a frequent speaker at national forums on the future of nanotechnology.

Other speakers will talk about research at the Argonne National Laboratory, GE, UW-Madison and companies such as Madison-based Platypus, which develops, produces and markets nanotechnologies for the life sciences. Platypus produces a variety of nano-structured surfaces for use in research and is developing a range of products that can rapidly detect molecular interactions.
One goal of the conference is to give nanotech researchers a chance to compare notes. But it’s also about giving technology officers in health care an opportunity to understand how nanotechnology can improve their businesses.

Along with the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference (Tuesday and Wednesday) and the Great Lake Biomedical Research Conference (Friday), the nanotech conference at UW-Madison is part of a week-long showcase of what Wisconsin has to offer. Thinking big about molecule-sized particles is yet another example of how the right investments in education, research and people are paying off for Wisconsin.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. To learn more about the nanotech conference, go to