Foresight Nanotech Update 58
A publication of the Foresight Nanotech Institute
Update interviews Dr. Ron Folman
The goal of advanced nanotechnology is to build complex objects to atomic precision. Several current technologies are leading toward the capability to place atoms exactly where we want them to be. These include, for example, scanning probe microscopy, engineering proteins and other biologically-inspired folding polymers, and using organic chemistry to build molecular devices. Update interviewed Dr. Ron Folman about the potential of another, more recent, approach, which makes more direct use of the quantum properties of atoms.
Dr. Ron Folman is the Director of The Weiss Family Laboratory for Nanoscale Systems at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. In mid-2005, Israel's Ben-Gurion University opened the first fabrication facility, costing $15 million, designed from the beginning to manufacture advanced quantum technology (QT) chips, known as atom chips. The lab is part of a larger $50 million Ilse Katz Center for Meso and Nanoscale Science and Technology.
Atom chips are the generic name given to solid state devices optimized to interface with quantum matter such as neutral atoms, ions, electrons and even molecules (trapped microns above the chip by electric, magnetic and light fields in the complete isolation of ultra high vacuum). QT is expected to give rise to accurate clocks, ultra precision navigation systems, sensitive magnetic detectors, gravitational field sensors and secure quantum communication as well as super fast quantum computers.
Placing single and isolated atoms
Update: How would you describe your research in relation to nanotechnology as a whole?
Dr. Folman: Our research is about the extreme end of nano technology in which we deal with single and isolated atoms. One may say that if usual nano technology is in the 1-100 nm scale, we operate in the 0.1 nm scale. Another difference is that our systems are governed by quantum rules whereas usual nano systems obey more classical rules, which govern when there are many degrees of freedom involved in the operation of a system.
Update: What is your current state of the art in fabricating and testing atom chips at Ben-Gurion University?
Dr. Folman: Several novel chips have been produced. We are utilizing new materials, geometries and fabrication processes to gain better control of the atom-surface interaction, thereby achieving better control of the atoms and less negative impact of the nearby surface of the chip. The results from the first chip sent to Europe are about to be published.
Update: Where does atom chip technology stand in terms of producing significant results in quantum physics and nanoscience?
Dr. Folman: Atom chip technology began in 1999 with 3 groups. Currently dozens of groups world wide are utilizing this device for anything from better insight into the mysteries of quantum mechanics (e.g. the border between classical and quantum called decoherence) to technology driven projects such as atom clocks, gravitational field sensors, acceleration sensors and super computers. This huge volume of activity is a consequence of the great potential and diversity of the device.
Update: What will be the most significant applications of atom chip technology, and in what time frames?
Dr. Folman: I would expect that in 5-10 years we will already see working prototypes of sensors and clocks. Later on we will see the atom chip play a role in quantum communications whereby flying qubits in the form of photons transfer their information to storage qubits in the form of atoms. A mature quantum computer is further down the road.
Update: In addition to direct applications, will atom chip technology contribute to realizing Feynman's suggestion to "Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance"? That is, do you believe it might be possible to manipulate atoms to produce configurations not easily produced by conventional chemistry?
Dr. Folman: Yes, the control that is now being achieved over ultra cold atoms on the atom chip (and also in general cold atom systems), will probably enable the production of novel forms of molecules. Some already call it super chemistry. However, note that we are talking about very small molecules with just a few atoms in them. They will not be used as molecular machines but rather in order to form the base for quantum computers and things of that sort.
But not for molecular machines
Update: Could atom chips be used to manipulate molecules or molecular devices to produce molecular machines or molecular machine systems?
Dr. Folman: No. Molecular machines usually mean hundreds and more atoms per molecule in order to achieve complex mechanical, chemical and even biological operations. This is not something atom optics aim to produce.
Update: Why should the general public care about nanotechnology?
Dr. Folman: The large field of nano technology should interest us for two reasons: a. because it will impact every aspect of our life: from solar energy to water desalination; from aerospace applications and computers to medical revolutions, and b. because we have to watch out for possible negative impacts on our environment.
Update: Why is nanotechnology important for the general public to understand?
Dr. Folman: I think every new science and technology should be comprehended by the general public, because it is the public and not the scientists who should build environmental and even ethical safeguards.
What will advanced nanotechnology be like, and how will it transform our lives?
Reviewed by James Lewis, PhD
In a book published in 2005, J. Storrs Hall, winner of the 2006 Foresight Institute Prize in Communication, explains why the nanotechnology applications currently being researched and developed are only the beginning of the things that we can expect from nanotechnology in the next few decades.
In Nanofuture: What's Next for Nanotechnology, Prometheus Books, 2005, computer scientist and nanosystems designer J. Storrs Hall, PhD, has painted a clear and compelling picture of how the human condition will be radically transformed during the middle decades of this 21st century by advanced nanotechnology. Dr. Hall vividly describes how current nanoscience and nanotechnology (which he terms "stage I" nanotechnology) have developed as products of scientific and industrial progress, and what we should expect as stage I evolves into stage V, "when the ability to make parts from simple molecules becomes general." With stage V nanotechnology, the general ability to design and fabricate complex systems with atom by atom precision will produce a wide variety of products with remarkable capabilities. The most fundamental limitations on human life and culture will disappear, bringing in their place new opportunities and new challenges. Before exploring these opportunities and challenges, however, Dr. Hall provides a firm foundation for a long range focus on nanotechnology. Otherwise, why pay serious attention to the implications of a technology that does not yet exist?
Dr. Hall explains that despite the weirdness of quantum mechanics, under most normal conditions, atoms act like objects that can be imaged and moved around. Furthermore, engineers can choose to avoid those situations that are relatively difficult to analyze. By limiting themselves to those molecular systems that are easiest to analyze, engineers can use relatively simple approximations like molecular mechanics to describe the forces between atoms, and molecular dynamics to describe how the atoms move in response to those forces.
However, even granting that atoms can be moved around and be used as building blocks for machine parts, advanced nanomachines will be incredibly complex — a problem Dr. Hall tackles by way of comparison with the design of computer chips.
As is done today with microchip design, nanomachine design will make use of very accurate but computationally expensive simulations to design the basic parts, such as transistors and wires in the case of microchips. These basic parts are thoroughly analyzed and checked to generate libraries of dependable parts that will function in known ways. This knowledge is used to generate design rules for how these parts can be combined to build complex systems. Thus the complex systems are only simulated at a high level. The logic functions of a microchip are simulated while ignoring the details of electric current movement through the individual transistors. Similarly it should be possible to simulate the movements of nanomachines built from well-analyzed parts while ignoring the movement of atoms within the individual gears, bearings, and other parts.
Dr. Hall describes advanced nanotechnology rather than the nanoscience and nanotechnology applications of today:
What capabilities are implicit in various interesting patterns of atoms and covalent bonds? Of special interest is the set of capabilities that will constitute an autogenous technology, that is, a technology with which it is possible to manufacture any piece of machinery in the manufacturing base of that technology. After explaining the effects of scaling laws on how materials and devices behave at the nanoscale, Dr. Hall describes a number of possible nanomachine counterparts of current-day macroscopic machine parts: motors, shafts, gears, bearings, wires, and more complex machines that can be built from these simple machines, such as milling machines to form million-atom parts by mechanically placing individual atoms or molecules, and robot arms to put those parts together. Selective pumps, termed molecular sorting rotors, could move fluids as necessary, interacting one molecule at a time.
Analysis of the set of capabilities that advanced nanotechnology will present produces surprising (and sometimes amusing) conclusions.
Why does building to atomic precision produce such astounding capabilities?
The second half of Nanofuture provides a tour of what advanced nanotechnology will bring. For example, food:
Molecular manufacturing will also provide practical flying cars, the potential for some or most of the human race to live and thrive beyond the Earth, robots to do all the work that needs to be done, and machine intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence as we know it today.
Advanced nanomedicine will replace current medical treatments, such as drugs and surgery, with nanorobots designed to detect and fix a variety of conditions. Nanomedicine will eliminate aging and most diseases, and will ultimately make possible radical enhancements of the human body, or enable the option to move an individual human consciousness into a completely non-biological substrate.
Nanofuture analyzes the challenges that advanced nanotechnology will bring as well as it does the opportunities. We may be threatened by runaway replicators; we will certainly be threatened by the easy availability of very nasty weapons. Trying to avoid these threats by suppressing development of nanotechnology would leave us defenseless, while open development by mainstream populations will provide defenses, much as we develop defenses against today's dangers.
Foresight Nanotech Update 58 Spring 2007
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