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Some companies will simply help common drugs work more efficiently. Elan Drug Delivery, located in King of Prussia, Pa., pulverizes existing drugs to a size that maximizes the body's ability to absorb them. Naproxen sodium, a pain medication found in products such as Aleve, can take as long as two hours to exert its pain-relieving effect. Nano Systems has developed a crystal version of naproxen, still in clinical development, that works in 15 to 20 minutes. "Using NanoCrystals has not made naproxen a better drug"--just seven to eight times as fast as the commercial product, says Larry Sternson, president of drug delivery at Elan, the Dublin-based drugmaker that is the parent company of Elan Drug Delivery.
Detection and analysis are also enhanced by small technology that is not strictly nano-scale. MesoSystems, a young but profitable firm, sells to fire departments handheld devices that collect biological particles 0.5 to 10 microns across--anthrax, for one--and preserve them in a liquid for identification. MesoSystems supplies Lockheed Martin with an air sampler it uses in its Biomail Solutions product, a biohazard detector in field testing at some federal agencies. MesoSystems made about $250,000 last year on revenues of $7 million and this year hopes to gross more than $10 million.
As an alternative to fossil fuel, everyone loves hydrogen fuel cells, which produce clean energy out of hydrogen and oxygen. But hydrogen, while abundant in the air, isn't widely available in refined form. And machines that run on hydrogen are equally scarce. Researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have been working on the first problem, automakers on the second. The Tokyo group has developed a way to "crack" hydrogen, using a mesh of thin carbon fibers studded with molecules of a nickel compound. The filter breaks down natural gas into carbon and hydrogen that is pure enough for use in fuel cells.
Another impediment is the cost and supply of the platinum particles that catalyze, or kick off, the process. Think of them almost as matchmakers, encouraging every oxygen atom to mate with two hydrogens, releasing valuable energy with each reaction. That is the heart of the fuel cell.
Because of the current size of these catalyst particles, about 10 nm, and their tendency to clump together, platinum is not used efficiently. The world's entire annual output of platinum would not meet the demand if fuel cells were used by only 10% of cars produced worldwide. Hydrocarbon Technologies--which is owned by Headwaters, an alternative-energy company based in Draper, Utah--says it has found a way to create nanoscale platinum particles that won't clump together and slow down the process, as current ones do. The new particles are expected to keep fuel cells running in a stable, efficient manner and stretch the platinum supply. Tim Harper, founder of CMP-Cientifica, says these particles show how "nanotechnology can make previously uneconomic processes viable" for businesses.