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Foresight Update 8

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Nanotechnology Symposium at MIT

by David Lindbergh

"Nanotechnology: Molecular Engineering and its Implications," the fifth MIT Nanotechnology Study Group (NSG) symposium, was held January 30 and 31 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Well over 150 people, many of them standing, crowded into the lecture hall as NSG member Christopher Fry opened the symposium. The two-day event presented a dozen speakers covering both the latest progress in nanotechnology development and some of the possible implications of this powerful new technology.

Fry set the ground rules for the symposium, saying "I want to impress upon you that you have a responsibility to find holes in arguments that are presented by speakers and force them to respond to those holes. What you are not allowed to do is walk out of here with any major unasked questions."

The first lecture, presented by Foresight Institute president K. Eric Drexler, was an introduction to nanotechnology and an exposition on the technical foundations of molecular engineering. There were many chemists in the audience, and Drexler contrasted assembler techniques with conventional solution chemistry. Assemblers will move selected molecules to a specific position to cause a particular reaction, while solution chemistry relies on random diffusive transport to bump the right molecules against each other in large numbers.

Apparently some of the chemists in the audience were uncomfortable with the "foreign" notion of using gears, bearings, and other analogs of macro-scale devices on the molecular level. In Drexler's words "Chemists have never been able to build large, rigid, precise structures; so they are used to thinking in terms of small or floppy molecules moving by diffusion."

Next, Howard C. Berg from Harvard University's Department of Biology described a 2 billion year old "nanotechnology" device, the flagellar motor. These motors are found in E. coli bacteria, where tiny rotary engines turn corkscrew propellers to push the bacteria through fluids which (at that scale) have a viscosity equivalent to a human swimming through light tar.

Just 22.5 nanometers in diameter, the motor can be made to run at speeds of 300 to 3000 RPM, and produces maximum torque at stall. It has about 30 different parts, eight independent force-generating elements, and can run in forward or reverse. The motor uses about 1000 protons to drive each revolution.

Dr. Berg's model of the motor's operation involves simple arrangements of channels, binding sites, and springs. This natural biological device shows that physical law allows nanometer scale machines with complex moving parts.

Gary Tibbetts from General Motors Research Laboratories discussed his work growing hollow carbon tubes as small as ten nanometers in diameter. The walls of these tubes can be as few as 10 atoms thick. His purpose is to develop an inexpensive way to make carbon fibers for very strong, light automobile structures, but these filaments might be a useful addition to a "toolkit" for early nanotechnology.

Gary Marx from the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning discussed privacy and security issues arising from nanotechnology. He fears that competitive pressures and complacency could easily cause the technology to be misused, resulting in a "Big Brother" society in which everyone is spied upon, personal information becomes public, irrelevant information is used to screen and stigmatize people, and technology is controlled by a privileged elite. He advised caution in dealing with new technologies, and vigilance against slow, creeping losses of privacy and control.
The MIT audience seemed to take many of Marx's points seriously, but NSG member Jeff MacGillivray pointed out that when advanced technology makes it possible to produce convincing fake records (video, computer, etc.), human witnesses will become more trustworthy than the output of automated surveillance.

Eric Garfunkel from Rutgers University's Laboratory for Surface Modification discussed some of the latest advances in scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). The STM is a device that can piezoelectrically position an atomically sharp tip with atomic precision and image a surface by moving the tip close enough (about one nanometer) to cause electrons to tunnel between the tip and surface. As the surface varies in height, the tip moves up and down to maintain a steady tunneling current. Recently STMs have been used to modify surfaces on a nanometer scale. Garfunkel's group has succeeded in gouging trenches in silicon that are 10 nanometers wide and one atomic layer deep by bumping the tip into the surface.

Dongmin Chen from the Rowland Institute for Science in Cambridge has been using similar techniques to produce atomic scale tunnel diodes. He has also used the STM to make 0.4 nanometer high bumps on silicon surfaces in regular patterns. Several audience members were concerned these tiny features would quickly disappear as atoms move around to fill holes and smooth out bumps. Chen responded that in materials like silicon the features are quite stable and have lasted as long as he can measure. In some other materials (such as gold, which has an unusually mobile layer of atoms at its surface) the features can disappear in 10 or 15 minutes.

Bruce Gelin from Polygen Corporation provided an overview of the state of the art in molecular modeling. He explained that while Schrödinger's "perfect" mathematical model of atomic behavior has been known for over 60 years, this quantum mechanical model is so computationally expensive that it's impractical to use it for anything bigger than a single hydrogen molecule, even with modern computers. So the challenge for molecular modelers is to find computationally tractable approximations for molecular behavior that are close enough to give the same practical results as nature. With current algorithms and workstation-type computers, one femtosecond (one millionth of a nanosecond) in the life of a small protein can be simulated in about one second. Gelin then presented a quick "how to do it" session for the would-be molecular modelers in the audience.

Kevin Ulmer, director of the Laboratory for Bioelectronic Materials with the Japanese RIKEN research agency, discussed RIKEN's 15 year project to produce self-assembling electronic materials using protein engineering techniques. Their ultimate goal is to produce a massively parallel cellular automata machine by making "wallpaper" of proteins with different electrical properties tiling a two-dimensional plane. For the shorter term, Ulmer said he would be satisfied to be able to tile a plane with arbitrary patterns of specified proteins.

Michael Rubner from the MIT Department of Materials Science discussed his molecular electronics work with 1 to 2 nanometer thick Langmuir/Blodgett films, in which he is trying to build up multiple layers of conducting polymers to make electronic devices.

Abraham Ulman from Eastman Kodak Research Laboratories has been working on the construction of 3 nanometer monolayers for fiber optic applications. He spoke about his progress and the complexities of computational modeling of these monolayers.

Greg Fahy, a cryobiology researcher with the American Red Cross, discussed medical and life extension applications of nanotechnology. While powerful cell repair machines may represent a distant goal for nanotechnological medicine, Fahy pointed out that many biochemical events associated with aging are already somewhat understood, and might be partially counteracted with drugs even before nanotechnology arrives. Fahy suggested some early goals for medical nanotechnology might be devices to transport specific molecules, programmable DNA inserters, removers, and "methyl-decorators," and "trans-membrane gates" to transport molecules into and out of cells.

Symposium chairman K. E. Nelson wrapped up the event with some cautionary advice about the potential dangers of nanotechnology. He reminded the audience that new technologies have dangers as well as benefits, and that while on the whole the benefits are usually greater, anything as powerful as nanotechnology must be handled very carefully, lest the dangers sweep us away before we can enjoy the benefits. The possibility of replicating devices and nanotechnology's powerful generality mean that foolishness (despite good intentions) or actual malign intent, could too easily result in disaster. Nanotechnology could allow people to change themselves, and our definitions of humanity. Nelson advocated careful and controlled development of the technology and better awareness on the part of the scientific community of the potential impact and likely results of their work. He reminded the MIT audience that it was their responsibility to make nanotechnology work, not just happen.

This symposium was supported by the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering, MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, MIT IAP Funding Committee, and the MIT Graduate Student Council.

This year's symposium focused more than previously on near-term techniques leading to the actual development of nanotechnology. Symposium organizer Zeke Gluzband noted afterward that "an order of magnitude more serious people seemed interested than a year ago." Nelson commented that he "discovered a much greater degree of acceptance of nanotechnology than in previous years. People seemed comfortable with talking in public about the subject."

As nanotechnology comes closer to reality, symposia like this one expose increasing numbers of scientists to the potential and eventual consequences of their work. Hopefully this awareness will help to channel the applications of the technology into benign directions.

David Lindbergh is a consulting software engineer in the Boston area and a member of the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group.


Foresight Update 8 - Table of Contents

 

International Interest in Nanotechnology

The World Economic Forum, held annually in Davos, Switzerland, is a major meeting of several hundred world leaders in government, industry, and business. At one point during the meeting this February, 70 ministers and heads of state were present, lending support to the meeting's unofficial description as the "world economic summit." At this year's event, three sessions included nanotechnology as a major topic.

At a Plenary Session on February 6, entitled "Technological Turbulences," Eric Drexler spoke on nanotechnology (with simultaneous translation into seven languages). The other session speakers were James Watson (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) and Mark Wrighton, head of MIT's chemistry department, with physicist Sergei Kapitsa as session chair. According to Kapitsa, a ten-minute segment on nanotechnology was subsequently aired on the Soviet Union's Radio Liberty channel.

Following the plenary, Drexler met with a smaller group to brief them in more detail on expected developments. The next day, FI's editor Chris Peterson held a briefing focusing on the expected environmental benefits of using molecular manufacturing to replace today's relatively inefficient and dirty manufacturing processes.

On February 8 Drexler gave a more technical presentation to an audience at the University of Basel, sponsored by Prof. H.-J. Güntherodt, a pioneering researcher in the field of scanning tunneling microscopy. The next day a similar presentation was given at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory, sponsored by physicist Heinrich Rohrer, one of the Nobel-prizewinning inventors of the STM. Part of the laboratory tour included a look at the recent remarkable electron microscopy work of Hans-Werner Fink, as yet unpublished. This work may be of great use in developing nanotechnology, and will be reported here as soon as possible.

Videotapes of the World Economic Forum plenary session are available from Gretag Displays Ltd, 8105 Regensdorf, Switzerland, at a cost of 100 Swiss francs. Specify session 12; indicate NTSC format for U.S. standard VHS format.


Foresight Update 8 - Table of Contents

 

Upcoming Events

Nanotechnology and the Frontiers of the Possible, April 3 lecture by Drexler at Iowa State University, Ames. 8 PM, followed by reception. Contact Prof. Robert Leacock at the Dept. of Physics, 515-294-3986.

Evolutionary Economics: Learning from Computation, April 23-24, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA. See symposium writeup in this issue. Contact Center for the Study of Market Processes, 703-323-3483.

Starburst Dendrimers and Their Polymers, 19th International Polymer Symposium, June 6, Michigan Molecular Institute. Covers chemistry of relevance to molecular engineering, including precision design of macromolecules; held in conjunction with regional meeting of ACS. Contact Co-Chairman Donald Tomalia, 517-832-5573.

STM '90, Fifth International Conference on Scanning Tunneling Microscopy/Spectroscopy, July 23-27, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Baltimore, MD. Sponsored by the American Vacuum Society and the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Contact Chairman James Murday, 202-767-3026, fax 202-404-7139.

NANO I, First International Conference on Nanometer Scale Science and Technology, held in conjunction with STM '90 described above. Includes investigation of fabrication and characterization of nanometer scale phenomena in surface chemistry and physics, solid-state physics, metrology, materials science and engineering, biology and biomaterials, mechanics, sensors, and electronics technology. Same contact as STM '90.

Frontiers of Supercomputing II: A National Reassessment, August, Los Alamos National Laboratory, sponsored by NSF, DOE, NASA, DARPA, NSA, the Supercomputing Research Center, and Los Alamos. Small strictly invitational meeting; Ralph Merkle will speak on nanotechnology at a session on the future computing environment.


Foresight Update 8 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


From Foresight Update 8, originally published 15 March 1990.


Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 8 to html for this web page.



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