Monday, December 17, 2018

Let's Get Nano: The Giant Growth of a Tiny Industry

Photo of Rio Salado grad, Caitlan McGough in a lab coat, standing in front of a large poster mapping out Rio Salado's Nanotech program's mission, outcomes and the like.
Rio Salado Nanotechnology graduate Caitlin McGough. Photo by Mark Moran                    

Rio Salado student Caitlin McGough didn't plan to be a scientist-- but then serendipity opened its doors.

“I needed another class to satisfy my financial aid, and the nanotech class seemed really interesting. I took it and fell in love with it,” she said when she signed up for online classes at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz.

“Nanotechnology embodies everything that has to do with engineering, chemistry, biology and science, and [then] puts them together with technology to form something that’s new and different.” 

Rio Salado College Faculty Chair for STEM
Initiatives Rick Vaughn at Mesa AZSciTech
Festival. Photo by Mark Moran

A nanometer is one-billionth of one meter, 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. “We're talking atoms and molecules here,” says Dr. Rick Vaughn, the faculty chair for STEM initiatives at Rio Salado. “These are the building blocks of all matter.” 

When scientists work with them, they have to use so-called clean rooms to guarantee the nanoparticles aren’t contaminated or even destroyed during experiments.

“To put it in perspective, even a follicle of hair or a skin cell falling off across your sample would be kind of like the Eiffel Tower falling across the landscape of Paris,” Vaughn says.

“It has the potential to completely destroy it.” 

Scientists are using these tiny particles in, well, almost anything. 

Nanoparticles are used in the commercial production of everything from hydrophobic (water-repelling) clothing and digital storage, to the production of puncture resistant tires, cosmetics, and even a paint that will “heal itself” if scratched.

3D rendering of a cell with a mechanical 
claw attached to it.
“It’s not just that the particles are smaller, it’s that things are going to behave differently at that scale,” says Vaughn. “That’s what makes them so incredibly powerful.”

Carbon nanofibers, for example, are used to make ultra light and strong bicycle frames. The carbon atoms arrange themselves hexagonally at the nanoscale. They’re rolled into nanotubes, which are crafted into a bicycle frame that weighs about two pounds and is geometrically lighter and stronger than steel or aluminum.

The explosion of commercial applications for nanotechnology has created a huge demand for jobs, with no real end in sight.

“Technology innovation, development, and manufacturing is a very diverse area of expertise and a very diverse job market,” says Barbara C. Lopez, a research engineer at the University of New Mexico (UNM). It’s so dynamic, Lopez says, that it’s hard to put a number on just how many jobs will be created in the next five years.

Text: Large Global Nanotech Market Seen.  Europe and Asia are expected to continue generating more revenue from nanotechnoloby-enabled products than the United States in 2018, experts say.  Those regions are projected to account for more than two-thirds of global revenue that year, while the United States is expected to represent about a fifth.  Projected Global Revenue from Nanotechnology-Enabled Products, by Region, I $Trillions, 2018. Alt text: Graph showing projected total of 3/69 trillion, divided by country: Europe: $1.33, Asia: 1.3, U.S.: .79, Rest of the World: 1.3.   Source: Lux Research, Inc. December 2015.

Revenue growth, though, is a different story. It’s pretty easy to put a finger on that, although it may be harder to get your mind around. One small segment of the industry known as BioMEMS “is estimated to double in revenue from $2.8 billion now to $6.1 billion in 2023,” Lopez says. Nanotech will provide “areas of tremendous growth and opportunity for today’s students,” she says.

Matthias Pleil, also a researcher at UNM, says that the job growth rate in the MEMS field alone is between 10-15 percent per year, which he suspects is indicative of the nanotechnology industry as a whole.

The jobs are not limited to high-end scientists, either. In fact, UNM’s Lopez says the people who can operate and fix the machines that are designed by Ph.D.s are the ones who are most in demand in the job market.

But therein lies the problem, according to Lopez. The United States has a shortage of skilled technicians, she says.

“There is a roadblock to growth in nano and microtechnology," says Lopez. "It’s that we do not have enough skilled technicians to fill the need to grow the industry.”

Pleil agrees that there is simply a sheer lack of people.

For example, “A large company in New York hired 400 engineers and about 1,000 technicians a few years ago,” Pleil says. The company, Global Foundaries, had a hard time finding people.

The pay is pretty good for someone with a certificate or associate degree. According to an online job search site, a technician in the nanotechnology field averages $57,000 a year in Arizona. That degree also puts future technicians in a good place to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the nanotech field, which opens doors to higher paying jobs.

McGough has just completed her coursework at Rio Salado College and is in the process of distributing her resume. More likely than not, her search won’t last too long.

“Technology is at the forefront of everything,” McGough said. “No matter what, I will always have a secure position in the marketplace.”

Snapshot from MCTV video, featuring Caitlan on camera at ASU lab
Watch this episode of MCTV’s MaricopaNow featuring Rio Salado’s Nanotechnology program.

By Rio Salado College Sr. Project Manager and Brand Journalist Mark Moran.

At Rio Salado College, Nano Knows No Limits.  
See where it takes you!