Seven German universities and a world-leading chemistry corporation agreed last month to join forces in the highly innovative area of nanosciences and technologies (NT). The new 25 million DM priority program, "Nanomaterials," was formed to increase understanding of the properties and fabrication of the nanoparticles that experts predict will form the key to a completely new dimension of product design. Young scientists should take note. According to recent studies, NT-related products will have an enormous impact on goods--and job markets--of the 21st century.
Can you imagine a material 10 times harder than steel and yet much lighter? Or shrinking all the information housed in the Library of Congress in a sugar cube? Although it sounds like magic, it's not: It's nanotechnology. And NT promises to produce a bewildering variety of life-changing products: medical adhesives, bioinert or bioactive surfaces for transplants, sensors for DNA-analysis, oral applicable insulin, and molecular engines assembled from DNA building blocks, to name just a few. "If I were asked for an area of science and technologies that will most likely produce the breakthroughs of tomorrow, I would point to nanoscale science and engineering," comments Neal Lane, U.S. presidential science adviser.
"Going nano" has also become a key strategy in the race for future leadership in global markets, according to a recent study  of Germany's Association of Engineers, VDI. This year's estimated $50 billion turnover for NT products is growing annually by an average of 15% to 20%. Competition for these upcoming markets is hot, and a winner is not yet in sight. Initiatives at the national level, like the United States' $500 million National Nanotechnology Initiative announced last month by President Clinton or Germany's Centers of Competence Network, " Nanonet ," emphasize the strategic significance of the new technologies.
Against this background, a new public-private partnership was brought into being last month in Germany: The Degussa-Hüls AG, a global chemistry corporation with more than 45,000 employees, and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), Germany's major research funder, agreed to set up "Priority Program Nanomaterials." "We have the needed know-how and market experience, through our partners from the universities we also have access to basic research, and we have a highly innovative market with attractive growth rates," explains Alfred Oberhaus, a board member of Degussa-Hüls, which will invest 12 million DM in the project.
For 3 years, scientists from seven universities and the Degussa-Hüls AG will jointly explore the creation and properties of nanoparticles, scaling up results from basic research to industrial production. "This very intense kind of cooperation is new for all partners," says Degussa-Hüls's project leader Andreas Gutsch. While Degussa-Hüls will open its labs to the researchers from seven universities, the scientists contribute latest results from basic research. "The project gives the DFG-funded scientists access to new nanomaterials and thus opens completely new perspectives for their research," says Reinhard Grunwald, DFG's secretary-general. Grunwald adds, "This cooperation is a good example for a win-win partnership between industries and universities."
Although NT-related research and markets are booming, you are still unlikely to find job ads for trained "NT professionals." But that doesn't mean that companies aren't actively searching for talented young scientists. "We are looking for especially open-minded, flexible scientists, preferably with a broad cross-section knowledge," nanomaterial project leader Andreas Gutsch tells Next Wave. However, "Interdisciplinary work still poses a challenge to the strongly hierarchical organized universities," says VDI's Gerd Bachmann. "In the near future, the coffee break with your colleagues from other departments will be an important part of your interdisciplinary training," he says.