The United States continues to lead the world in nanotechnology patent applications and grants, and is poised to see a period of exponential growth in the field in the next few years, according to "Intellectual Property in the Next Technology Revolution: How Does the United States Stack Up?," a study by the law firm McDermott Will & Emery.
The leadership role is important because the next technology revolution will likely be based on nanotechnologythe understanding and control of matter at the nanoscale, the study's authors say. One nano is one-billionth of a meterin other words, a nanometer is so small, a human hair is 40,000 nanometers thick, and one page of a book is about 100,000 nanometers.
The ability to work at that size is being applied to all kinds of new inventions at an increasing rate. "It's important for the U.S. to be a leader in such a base technology," says Carey Jordan, a McDermott partner and an author of the study.
In 2012, U.S.based inventors accounted for 54 percent of nanotechnology-related patent applications and issued patents. South Korea followed with 7.8 percent, Japan with 7.1 percent, Germany with 6.2 percent, and China with 4.9 percent. On a regional basis, inventors based in North America (the U.S. and Canada) led with 56.6 percent; those in East Asia (South Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan) followed with 23.9 percent; and inventors in Europe were third with 18.5 percent.
The study also examined a geographical breakdown of 2012 nanotechnology patent literature based on the location of the assignee. If an inventor works in the United States for a Japanese company, for example, the inventor is U.S.based but the assignee is Japanese, and the Japanese company might own the patent.
Viewed with these geographical parameters, North America's share of nanotechnology-related patent literature was smaller, but it still led worldwide with 45.2 percent in 2012. East Asia was next with 22.4 percent, and Europe followed with 15.7 percent.
Patent literature was defined for the purpose of the study as U.S. patent applications, patents granted by the Patent and Trademark Office, and published international patent applications that had the term "nano" in the claims, title, or abstract.
In the decade between 2002 and 2012, East Asiaespecially China and South Koreahave seen some of the greatest growth in nanotechnology patent literature, according to the study. Of the top 15 assignees, the United States dominated with nine, followed by East Asia with four and Europe with two. Computer and electronics companiessuch as IBM Corporation, Hon Hai Precision Industry, and Samsung Electronicswere the top assignees.
"We're moving from a computer-based revolution to a nanotechnology-based revolution, so it isn't surprising that the computer and electronics sector would come first," Jordan says. "But other industries, such as chemistry, biological sciences, medicine, and energy, are starting to become pervasive in nanotechnology patent literature."
Other leaders included the University of California, Xerox Corp., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and 3M Co. Worldwide, the total number of nanotechnology patent applications, patents granted by the PTO, and published international patent applications went from 14,261 in 2007 to 18,855 in 2012, according to the study.
Nanotechnology plays a role in almost every economic sector, from aerospace to medicine to energy, the study says. Many commercial products incorporate nanomaterial or nanotechnology principles, such as new types of batteries that can be used to power vehicles, and new ways to treat tumors and cancerous growths that focus on the tumor without damaging surrounding tissue. "Nanotech is used in alternative energy, in cancer research, and many other areas," says Valerie Moore, a Ph.D. and patent agent at McDermott and a coauthor of the study.