Wednesday, November 25, 2009

ONAMI Tour


:: Wanderers @ ONAMI ::

A posse of Wanderers caravaned to ONAMI today, Oregon's nanotechnology headquarters, situated on the Hewlett-Packard campus in Corvallis, but belonging to Oregon State. ONAMI is a non-profit tenant in this building, charged with managing a state investment fund aimed at assisting startups taking advantage of new breakthroughs in materials science.

Robert D. "Skip" Rung, the president and executive director, took us into the Willamette conference room on the 2nd floor and gave us a sample of his various talks, the kinds of slides he shows to investor groups, politicians, researchers, fellow citizens. He puts a lot of emphasis on the green aspects of nanotechnology, countering public fears about unforeseen consequences and/or dual use applications. He mentioned "grey goo" explicitly, along with Bill Joy's fear-mongering.

I found it poetically appropriate that this building used to house Hewlett-Packard's famous ink jet technology skunkworks. Today's nanotech, a lot of it biomedical, is all about doing more with less, making individual atoms work harder. Sometimes you only need a very small amount of something, and at the nano scale, materials tend to be mostly surface area, relative to volume, so reactive atoms will have maximal exposure. Less waste equals more green, is one equation.

Another equation is keeping Oregon at the forefront in some niches, such as hemodialysis, filtration, imaging and so on. The design pattern here is fairly standard: intellectual capital is your surplus for bartering with others, so unless a region has unduplicated know-how, it has to compete in commodity manufacture which, given globalization, is more effectively outsourced.

Our group mostly played the role of the intelligent layman, bringing up those fears of unforeseen consequences. This was an easy topic to harp on, given our numbers. Skip was happy to spar a little, showing off his PR skills. Embryonic zebra fish, semi-transparent, provide a first set of case studies, when investigating the effects of a new nano-substance on a biological system.

We were too large a group to fit into any small spaces, mostly just took a brief look at the facility currently under construction. Windows on the 2nd floor look out over the floor space. This is not a place out of Andromeda Strain. Potential toxins will be handled with hoods (special handling boxes). The building is not under negative pressure or anything like that.

PNNL, a national lab with facilities in the Tri-Cities area of Washington, is turning out to be a major player here too. Various companies, like the hemodialysis one, will lease space, share equipment, in order to get their production processes more developed and tested. Bringing new materials and processes together, with an eye to commericalization, is what ONAMI is all about.

The conference room included an assembled buckyball made from the commercial Zome kit. I brought up my experience attending the first international conference on fullerenes in Santa Barbara and Dr. Smalley's "it's the yield, stupid" speech (alluding to a political meme at the time), which I wrote about in the BFI's TrimTab. Yield is still an issue of course: some of these nano-substances are quite expensive in pure form. However, you can get a veritable "dog's breakfast" of differently sized nanotubes of varying metals for cheap, Skip suggested.

Speaking of nanotubes, Skip speculated that they'd come in handy for improving the conduction of electricity over long distances, sooner than they'd be needed for that space elevator people sometimes yak about.

If I were cluing high schoolers about this content, I'd harp on my HP4E meme (hexapents for everyone), named for Guido's CP4E. Synergetics, in focusing on natural geometries, is a goldmine of relevant visuals, good for advertisers, animators with a focus on biomedical and materials science ala Zome.

I wrote this account in Steve Mastin's car on the way back to Portland. We encountered an early rush hour (this day before TG), ended up taking Sellwood Bridge instead of Marquam or Ross Island. Glenn Stockton was sitting behind me. I read the draft back for comment, tweaked it a little. Some of us regathered for lunch at Thanh Thao. Don Wardwell phoned me later, to request I post about Jon Bunce doing a concert at Terwilliger Plaza on Friday night at 7:30.