The nanotechnology industry is a cross-disciplinary field of research and development in most of the life and physical sciences. Molecular nanotechnology as of 2011 largely focuses on developments in the four key sectors of medicine, military systems, energy, and computer science, though research can touch upon almost any area of industrial or commercial interest. The focus of nanotechnology company business models in the early 21st century tends to be in materials science, and pharmaceutical drug creation and delivery systems. This is because making unique chemical and material structures are easier to engineer than more mature nanotechnologies of the future, which will have an increasing focus on autonomous, self-replicating machines built to carry out specific tasks.
Since the nanotechnology industry can be incredibly broad-based and bring refinements in materials and the functioning of machinery to virtually any process, nanotechnology education must attempt to convey a sense of understanding of many research arenas. This often results in experts in certain fields such as physics, chemistry, or crystallography cross-training in fields such as microbiology and electrical engineering so that they can work in other disciplines to fully understand the processes that act at the molecular scale. New students to the field of nanotechnology are required to gain a fundamental understanding of several areas of human knowledge. These include physics, chemistry, microbiology, and related life sciences, and practical applications for these sciences in various fields of engineering.
The growth of the fledgling nanotechnology industry is being funded by a wide variety of governments throughout the world, from those of the European Union, to Japan, India, Russia, the United States, and Australia. As of 2011, it is estimated that $10,000,000,000 US Dollars (USD) is being spent annually on a global basis for such research, and this figure is expected to increase to $65,000,000,000 USD by the end of the same year. By 2014, estimates are that research expenditure globally will be $100,000,000,000 USD, and, by 2015, it should approach $250,000,000,000 USD. Developing nations are also heavily investing into nanotechnology industry, with China's expenditures passing those of the US in 2011.
In many respects, successfully building any viable nanotechnology application is a race to a finish line where the winner will hold patents on devices or materials that have the potential to have global implications and change society in unforeseen and revolutionary ways. Many scientists see nanotechnology industry as the beginning of a second Industrial Revolution that is silently taking place in laboratories around the world and which largely goes unnoticed by the public. This is despite the fact that several thousand products and materials are already for sale on the retail market as of 2011 with features that have been engineered at a nanotechnological scale.
The widespread interest in the nanotechnology industry is a direct result of how much of a general purpose science it is. It has the capability of taking any known chemical or machine process and making it more efficient and powerful by controlling the reactions that occur at an atomic and molecular scale, which is unprecedented in human history. Scaling control of these processes up to the macro level of everyday human activity has the potential to make industrial processes that are able to recycle 100% of their waste products or take waste produced by previous generations of society and refine it into useful new materials by rebuilding its basic molecular structure.
Nanotechnology machines also have the potential to be able to bypass fundamental roadblocks in human understanding. Acting as a form of universal mechanic, such programmed microscopic machines may one day be able to replace damaged cells or organs in the human body by manufacturing new ones from the molecular scale on up, without the necessity of understanding what caused the organ failure to occur in the first place. The nanotechnology industry has the goal, therefore, to take advantage of knowledge in chemistry, physics, and biology to act as a form of assembly line worker, replacing worn materials and systems with new ones while utilizing potential waste material as source matter to do so. Natural systems like trees have been doing this from time immemorial by building complex structures one cell at a time, but, until recently, human society acted only to shape and utilize the end results of such growth.
Both K. Eric Drexler with his 1986 book, The Engines of Creation, and Richard Feynman's 1959 talk, There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, are considered the fundamental sparks that created a firestorm of interest in science and engineering for the nanotechnology industry. Drexler believed that there were no fundamental limits to creating self-replicating molecular machines that could eventually build any device or material from general source matter. Feynman promoted the same idea by stating that the direct manipulation of atoms was a practical possibility.