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Q&A: Justin Hall-Tipping, nanotechnology entrepreneur

Q&A: Justin Hall-Tipping, nanotechnology entrepreneur

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The CEO of Nanoholdings -- a company focused on uncovering nanotechnology breakthroughs in energy generation, transmission, storage and use -- discusses the status of his field, the "eBox" and the possibility of a "zero-grid" future in energy.

The use of one simple word—"normal"—caused Justin Hall-Tipping to re-evaluate everything.

It was early in 2000, and he was working as a venture capitalist with a global bank. Reading the newspaper one morning, he came across a story on the B15 Iceberg breaking off the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. "The newspaper said it was all part of a 'normal' process," he says, "but then further on, it said, 'a process that would normally take 50 to 100 years to replace.' That word, 'normal,' was being used in two different places with two different meanings. It just stopped me. I thought, 'This isn't normal, and if everyone's saying that it is, what does that mean?'"

Now acutely aware that climate change had become a serious problem, Hall-Tipping began to think about possible solutions. He'd been following the emerging field of nanotechnology for several years by then, and suspected it might hold some of the answers. "It was just a hunch, to start with," he adds, "but it turned out to be true: Nanotechnology has enough proof that things get much more energetic the smaller they go, and if we learn to harness that energy, we can wholly replace some of the pretty stupid things we do like burning up our environment as our source of energy."

Hall-Tipping formed Nanoholdingsa company focused on uncovering nanotechnology breakthroughs in energy generation, transmission, storage and use. He recently spoke with us about the status of his field, the eBox his company has discovered and the possibility of a "zero-grid" future.

How would you explain nanotechnology in the most basic terms?

Nanotechnology is very simple. We all played with Lego blocks as a kid. You get a pile of Lego blocks on the floor and you pick up two pieces and you click them together. Your imagination leads you to either make a car, a house, or just a jumble of stuff. It's up to you. The universe is nothing more than Lego blocks, except the blocks happen to be carbon, hydrogen and a whole bunch of other stuff. If you take those building blocks, just like Legos, and click them together, you'll either make a house or you'll make a mess of blocks or you'll make a new material that can hold an electron better than a lead-acid battery and so forth.

We are at the stage in science of having exquisite control over the Lego blocks at the nano scale, so you can do anything you want. If you think about what discoveries are about to occur, they're all going to come from essentially clicking Lego blocks together. It's going to be a great time to live through.

Which fields are successfully using nanotechnology?

Certainly energy, and by definition if you say energy, you also are saying water. Materials, obviously. And then medicine. Those are the big ones.

And your company is focused on the energy side?

Energy and water. We're very specialized. We do the hunt for energy and water solutions at the nanoscale at universities worldwide.

What have you been finding so far in that hunt?

We've developed what we call an eBox, and we've had our first prototype running for a year. It can use multiple different power sources—a solar panel, a wind turbine, the grid—and you can go behind the box and pull plugs out and it seamlessly transfers from one source to another. The concept is an energy management and storage system in the home such that the [energy] grid of tomorrow is no grid. You can generate and store all the energy you want right where you are, and if I don't need it, I can pass it to you as my neighbor. Moving energy is actually something that we're starting to get very good at. We do it by light, we do it by microwave, we do it in a whole bunch of ways.

So how soon might we be living in a world without power lines?

The concept that I have to have a wire [to obtain energy] is very old, sort of like a floppy disk on a computer. I think sometime in the next 10 to 15 years, kids are going to be saying, 'Now let me understand this. You put up a pole, you strung a cable, you passed electricity around, and you did this why?' The people who make money are going to be the ones who manage and use and store and transfer energy. It's not going to be made from digging a hole in the ground and sucking up oil and putting it in a centralized plant. That's going to look really old-fashioned fairly quickly.

That sounds like it relies on advanced applications of nanotechnology, and yet the National Science Foundation has said that nanotech is "at a level of development similar to that of computer technology in the 1950s." What does that mean to you and for the work you're doing?

I agree with the essence of that statement. To me, it says that the pervasiveness of the technology is limited compared to where it will be and that the expertise that we have is fairly rudimentary compared to where it will be. It speaks to the immense promise of what's about to unfold. I don't think it applies in the same timeline, though. I think it's saying that it's going to be explosive and it's going to change everything and if you study technology introduction across all industries, you'll come away with the inescapable conclusion that every time technology is introduced, the time from introduction to mass adoption is shrinking.

The amount of innovation that is about to be unleashed as a result of having exquisite precisions over materials is going to be one of the most massive technological waves that we have ever seen. I have huge hope, actually, that the solutions to our climate and energy problems are actually just around the corner. The unfortunate thing is that almost everybody seems to be blind about what the future is. It's all very pessimistic. I keep saying, 'Hold on, you just have to peek under the cover of God's skirt and you'll see what's coming.' It's massive. I have huge hope. For the U.S. to grab hold of this, it will be the thing that reinvigorates the economy. It's going to be a remarkable time. You'll see some things that will just peel your hair back.

On the flip side, there's been a lot of debate about nanotechnology over the years. A 2004 report from the Royal Society said that some NGOs and even nanotechnologists themselves had expressed concerns about the field, including "uncertainties about the impact of new nanomaterials on human health" and the possibility of nanotechnology converging with information technology and artificial intelligence to create "self-replicating robots that might devastate the world." What aspects of nanotechnology do you see as potential concerns?

I think all technology, no matter what it is, has equal opportunity for help or hurt. Personally, it doesn't worry me too much because from the 10 years or so that we've been in the industry, I've seen that most of the time, nanomaterial is encapsulated in something so it looks like other industries that are already established. We also welcome, and have always welcomed, government regulations. It means that everybody is required to operate under the same sets of rules about what's safe and what's not, and that it's done responsibly.

What about funding—are we paying enough attention to nanotechnology?

Talk about being completely asleep at the switch. We spend our future inheritances on proverbial mega-waste, supporting banking systems when arguably some of them shouldn't be, supporting car industries. Miles per gallon today on average are what, 22 maybe? Seventy years ago, what was it, 15 MPG? That's what we've done? Come on.

You come along with a new frontier of science which will literally enable you to reorder the building blocks of the universe such that you can do things way better on an exponential level than anything we've done before and it's, 'Well, that's nice to have and we'll get there one day.' All the while, we're funding how many wars overseas in areas that are politically sensitive for us to have energy? Imagine if the U.S. had taken those trillions of dollars beforehand and said, 'In 10 years, we will be completely independent energy-wise and we're going to do it by harnessing new forms of energy.' I think the odds that we would have found the 'its' are very, very high. But of course we didn't do that. We thought short-term, so short-term is still the problem we've got. By not making the choices that we should have, we have made a choice, and that's the part that gets really worrying when you think about what we're going to leave to our kids.

When is a leader going to stand up and say, like Kennedy said, 'We're going to go to the moon in 10 years.' What he didn't say is, 'Let's try to get to the moon but settle for halfway.' Where is the person who's going to stand up and say, 'We're going to do that with energy, water and food — the basic, fundamental human rights for everyone in the world.'

Globally, who is at the forefront of nanotechnology developments?

It's not the U.S. If you think of what nanotechnology really requires, it requires a tremendously good education system because the people who are doing it are physicists, chemists, material scientists. These are incredibly well-trained people. When you go into any science lab no matter where it is in the world, it looks like the United Nations. It's not just Johnny or Jane from Iowa in America and Fredrik in Germany. United Nations is science. If you think in those sorts of terms, you think of who's putting a lot of money and effort into this, and it's China, India, Japan, Germany and it's not certain that America will win that race. Not by any means. What you're really talking about is the science of the next hundred years. It's as much about national security as it is about interesting science.

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure