Gaga Over Nano

What's a day trader to do on a light day like last Friday? Roll the dice on nanotech stocks, of course. On the most actives list -- among the Ciscos (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) and Microsofts (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) -- were stocks like Altair Nanotechnologies (Nasdaq: ALTI  ) , which traded 10.9 million shares and had a stock-price surge of 21.3%.

Investors are going gaga over nano, especially in light of President Bush's signing of the 21st Century Nanotech Research and Development Act, which commits $3.7 billion to nanotechnology research. (Quick science lesson: Nano stands for one-billionth; thus, in scientific terms, nanotechnology means dealing with small things, at the atomic level.)

It's also a breakthrough discovery for small-cap hypesters. According to the buzz, nanotechnology will lead to cost-effective (and healthy) foods, faster and more efficient microchips, medical fluids (perhaps to reverse the aging process), rebuilding of the ozone layer, clean up of oil spills, and on and on.

But is an obscure company, such as Altair Nanotechnologies, ready to revolutionize the world?

It hasn't so far in its 25-year history. Based in the hotbed of nanotech (Reno, Nev.), the company was initially in the business of mineral properties exploration. Then it focused on the acquisition, development, and testing of mineral processing equipment.

It's been a bust. For the first nine months of 2003, the company had revenues of $42,029 and a net loss of $3.9 million.

In December, the company announced wide-scale restructuring: dump the losers and focus on the Big Prize of nano. It was a smart move, as the company was having a near-death experience. Now, it has raised money through option and warrant exercises, and plans an issue of common stock.

Also, in December, Congress funded a $2 million grant to Altair (along with two universities) for the development of nanosensors in detecting chemical, biological, and radiological agents in the environment.

But this is for research -- which, in the world of science, is a dicey thing. Commercialization is likely to take several years, if at all. And will a mere $2 million revolutionize the world?

Many scientists believe that nanotech is likely to take several decades to make its mark. But, at least in the near term, nanotech has been able to suspend the laws of nature for its small public companies, including JMAR Technologies (Nasdaq: JMAR  ) , Nanogen (Nasdaq: NGEN  ) , Nanophase Technologies (Nasdaq: NANX  ) , and Harris & Harris Group (Nasdaq: TINY  ) .

Tom Taulli is the author of six books on investing, including The Complete M&A Handbook (Random House). You can reach him at

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