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Company pioneers microscopic technology for commercial testing

DULUTH - In this ordinary looking office building, 18 scientists, engineers and support staff use remarkable technology that improves everyday products.

Paint that looks smoother, potato chips that crunch louder and artificial hips that perform better.

The scientists do this with high-powered microscopes that see particles at the nano level, or one-billionth of a meter.

How small is that?

"A fraction of the width of a human hair," said Tim Vander Wood, co-founder and president of the Duluth company MVA Scientific Consultants.

That means Vander Wood can analyze tiny imperfections on the surface of an artificial hip that would otherwise be invisible. Once the manufacturer spots the flaws, it can make a superior hip.

In a laboratory housed at the company's Breckinridge Boulevard headquarters stands the Nano Test, a $225,000 device that enables Vander Wood and others to see clearly at such a small scale.

MVA struck a deal last year with the British company MicroMaterials, which developed the device and allowed MVA to be the only firm in the United States that uses the Nano Test commercially.

The move may expand the market for MVA, which over the past 15 years has amassed hundreds of customers including makers of pharmaceuticals, household cleaners and packaging.

Nanotechnology is becoming big business, said company spokesman Tony Cooper, citing an industry report showing demand for nanoscale materials, tools and devices will reach nearly $29 billion by 2008.

Nanotechnology is still an emerging field, but its roots stretch back to the late 19th century when a few scientists got interested in manipulating molecules.

The physicist Richard Phillips Feynman is usually credited for spurring the advance of nanotechnology through his 1959 lecture on the subject. His lecture, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" spoke of the remarkable potential of controlling things at the nano level.

"Nanotechnology is the new frontier," said MVA Executive Director Richard Brown "Funding for nanotechnology affects almost every major university in the world."