17 January 2013
As we welcome in 2013, will nanotechnology continue to dominate many of the scientific headlines in the coming year, just as it has done over the past decade? The huge activity across nanotechnology in recent years, reflected in an ever-increasing number of patents, suggests that it will.
In 2012 the US patent office published some 4000 patents under its class ‘977 – nanotechnology’. This was a record, up from 3439 the previous year, 2770 in 2010 and 1449 in 2009.
Do these figures herald an exciting dawn of technological innovation based around components measured at the atomic and molecular scale? Emphatically not and on the contrary, argues Joshua Pearce, who runs the Open Sustainability Technology lab at Michigan Technological University in the US. The problem is that in the rush to patent potentially lucrative new discoveries, a forest of broad and overlapping patents have been filed around the world by commercial and academic researchers. If someone wishes to develop a new product that uses single-walled carbon nanotubes, for example, there is a dense ‘thicket’ of hundreds of patents to be negotiated.