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Nanotechnology in the News


    NSF Director names nanotechnology breakthrough opportunity    
    Discover Magazine awards recognize nanotechnology researchers    
    Drexler named to Newsweek's "The Century Club"    
    MIT Technology Review Publishes Article on Molecular Nanotechnology    
    Smalley wins Nobel Prize in chemistry    
      Advocate of nanotechnology research    
      Pioneer in fullerene research    
      Nanotube tips for scanning probe microscopes    
    National Public Radio enlightens and confuses about nanotechnology    
      Moving atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope    
      Building devices with individual atoms    
      Skepticism based upon discrediting arguments that have not been made    
      The real world of nanotechnology    
    Investment newsletter considers nanotechnology    


April, 1998.

NSF Director names nanotechnology breakthrough opportunity

In testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on VA/HUD and Independent Agencies, on April 1, 1998, Dr. Neal Lane, Director of the National Science Foundation, said:

If I were asked for an area of science and engineering that will most likely produce the breakthroughs of tomorrow, I would point to nanoscale science and engineering, often called simply "nanotechnology". The general idea of nanotechnology is not new -- it has been studied since Nobel laureate Richard Feynman outlined the idea in a speech in 1959 -- but only recently have scientists been able glimpse Feynman's vision by creating rudimentary nanostructures.

NSF support over the years has allowed nanoscale science and engineering to go from the realm of science fiction to science fact. One of the most notable NSF-supported discoveries was the Nobel Prize winning discovery by Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at Rice University and Harry Kroto of Sussex University in England of a hollow form of carbon known as Buckyballs. Subsequent research has shown that a related class of molecules -- the fullerenes -- can form "nanotubes" only a few atoms in diameter that could be the basis for a stunning array of new environmentally friendly, carbon based materials never known before.

The possibilities of nanotechnology are endless. Entirely new classes of incredibly strong, extremely light and environmentally benign materials could be created. Other possibilities include:

  • New generations of metals and ceramics several times harder and more ductile that today. This could enable the creation of inexpensive and readily available superconductive materials;
  • medical implants that are constructed to be accepted by the body; and
  • medical probes so small that they won't damage the tissue.

Some nanoscale scientists and engineers even envision nanomanufactured objects that could change their properties automatically or repair themselves. When you think about it, this idea is not so outlandish -- DNA molecules in our own bodies can replicate themselves with incredibly small rates of error. Much of the inspiration for nanoscale scientists and engineers comes from the biosciences and bioengineering - making nanoscale science a perfect example of the integration of the physical sciences and biosciences.

Dr. Lane's complete testimony can be found at: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/congress/nlane498.htm

In a related item, it was announced that "The National Science Foundation (NSF) is planning a $75 million investment in nano-scale science and engineering research in FY 1999." [http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/media/ma984.htm]


June, 1997.

Discover Magazine awards recognize nanotechnology researchers

The 1997 Discover Magazine Awards for Technological Innovation in the category of "energing technology" both went to nanotechnology researchers. Both James Gimzewski, a physicist at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory in Switzerland, and Nadrian C. Seeman, a chemist at New York University, will be speaking at the Fifth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology this November.

The annual DISCOVER Awards for Technological Innovation recognize scientists and engineers "who are the unsung heroes of our technological age." In addition to seven categories ranging from "Automotive & Transportation" to "Sound", the "Editors' Choice Award for Emerging Technology" was given "to a technology so novel that its applications are far from clear."

Gimzewski was recognized for his work constructing a molecular scale abacus. Another of his substantial accomplishments was using a scanning probe microscope to position individual molecules at room temperature.

Seeman was recognized for his accomplishments in making three-dimensional nano-scale objects from DNA molecules joined together. He was the winner of the 1995 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology (see also the article in Update 23) Seeman's work was also featured in a February 1997 article in Discover Magazine.


April, 1997.

Drexler named to Newsweek's "The Century Club"

K. Eric Drexler, Ph.D., Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Foresight Institute and Research Fellow of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, was named by Newsweek as someone they will "be watching in the year 2000 and beyond."

Newsweek (April 21 1997, page 34) ran an article on "The Century Club: A Newsweek list of 100 people to watch as America prepares to pass through the gate to the next millennium."

On page 41, under "Science & Medicine," they list "K. Eric Drexler, 41. Drexler studies the possibilities of molecule-size machines that might be able to repair cells and build microscopic computers. He chairs Palo Alto's Foresight Institute." Drexler was one of only 15 people listed under "Science & Medicine".


February, 1997.

MIT Technology Review Publishes Article
on Molecular Nanotechnology

The February/March issue of MIT's Technology Review includes an article by Foresight Director Dr. Ralph Merkle on nanotechnology, starting on page 25. The article is available on their Web site:
http://web.mit.edu/afs/athena/org/t/techreview/www/articles/fm97/merkle.html

In this article Dr. Merkle provides a clear introduction to the basic concepts of molecular nanotechnology, and discusses the basic tools that will be necessary to develop the technology, and how they might be developed.

Dr. Merkle has placed a longer, more technical version of this article on his web site:
http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/MITtecRvwSmlWrld/article.html


October, 1996.

Nanotechnologist Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Prof. Richard E. Smalley, Director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University, shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with his collaborators Robert F. Curl and Harold W. Kroto for their 1985 discovery of fullerenes, a hitherto unknown crystalline form of carbon.

After his ground-breaking discovery of buckminsterfullerene, Smalley played a major role in persuading Rice University to build a nanotechnology research lab (see story in Foresight Update 17). Rice University was perhaps the first to embrace nanotechnology as a unifying theme crossing disciplines as diverse as computation, physics, chemistry, and biology.

A champion for the importance of nanotechnology

Prof. Smalley energetically championed the future of nanotechnology in an interview given to Rice News and reprinted in Foresight Update 18. Excerpts:

"The idea behind nanotechnology is ultimately, and maybe sometime very soon, to custom design the materials around us atom by atom, much like an architect designs a building. Except now the building materials will be atoms rather than bricks or steel beams."

...

"If you think about this business of building objects that exist and function on a nanometer scale where every atom is in a particular place to serve a function, then all the machinery in each of our cells basically is that -- everything in nature, we ourselves."

...

"We tend to bandy the term nanotechnology about more than nanoscience or nanoengineering primarily because in one word nanotechnology comprises both the fundamental intellectual aspect of this new field and the fact that it is relevant to society."

...

"The blunt, simple answer is that nanotechnology is where the action will be. We must have that reflected in the undergraduate curriculum. After all, the students come here not just to learn about what's in books but to know what's going to happen in the real world and to be preparing themselves to think along these lines.

It's important to pick problems that are going to lead some place, that are going to have impact. Since science is such an expensive operation these days, it cannot be funded simply as an exercise of artistic enjoyment. It is funded at a high level because it is important to solving the practical needs of society, So from the very word nanotechnology you can see how it tries to connect to society as a whole. As the research that goes on in the university becomes more relevant in society it should be reflected in the curriculum. Why should we be teaching students to become scientists and engineers in the old technology? They should be part of the future."

More recently, in December of 1995, Prof. Smalley gave a talk (Nanotechnology and the Next 50 Years) in which he concluded:

"We've got to learn how to build machines, materials, and devices with the ultimate finesse that life has always used: atom by atom, on the same nanometer scale as the machinery in living cells. But now we've got to learn how to extend this now to the dry world. We need to develop nanotechnology both on the wet and dry sides. We need it urgently to get through these next 50 years. It will be a challenge. But, I am confident we will succeed."

Smalley's fullerene research

Prof. Smalley was a speaker at the 1995 Foresight Conference.

The current issue (number 26) of Foresight Update includes an article on a recent nanotube advance from Prof. Smalley's laboratory, the production in high yield and high purity of "ropes" consisting of bundles of perfect single wall nanotubes.

Prof. Smalley gave a talk in January of 1996 to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, which he has placed on the Web (From Balls to Tubes to Ropes: New Materials from Carbon). He provides a very readable and informative introduction to his work, and to the unique properties of these new forms of carbon. This article is an excellent starting point for consideration of the potential of fullerene research for developing nanotechnology.

Nanotubes as tips for scanning probe microscopes

Prof. Smalley has proposed "the general development of fullerene tubes as the tips of proximate probes and manipulators." The ultimate goal of this work "... will be a single-wall nanotube of precisely known atomic structure with a specific chemical derivitization of the tip optimized to the last atom for the intended probing purpose. "

He has made available at his Web site a preprint of a paper ("Nanotubes as Nanoprobes in Scanning Probe Microscopy") to be published by Nature in which he and his colleagues report "initial successes in using individual carbon nanotubes several microns in length as probe tips in SFM and STM." [SFM, for scanning force microscopy is a newer term for AFM, atomic force microscopy.] The experiments that they report were done using multi-walled nanotubes (MWNT), but at the end of the paper they mention initial success attaching a (smaller) single-walled nanotube (SWNT) to the end of a MWNT tip.

The MWNT tip was bonded with an acrylic adhesive to the side of the tip of a conventional silicon AFM cantilever tip. A bundle of MWNT's was glued to the silicon tip, and then a single MWNT was pulled from that bundle to give a single MWNT AFM tip, as shown in their Fig.1.

One major advantage that they report for a MWNT AFM tip is that it is both stiff and gentle to the sample, that is, it will not bend at all until a buckling force exceeds 5 nN, and then will bend completely out of the way with very little additional force. Another major advantage is that the long narrow (5 nm-diameter, 250 nm-long) MWNT tip can reach into a narrow, deep trench (400 nm wide by 800 nm deep) "etched through a TiN coated aluminum film on a silicon wafer" that is inaccessible to conventional AFM tips. They were even able to apply voltage to the tip to deposit a 40-nm dot of carbon on the bottom of the trench.

[Note that on the version of the paper posted on the Web Fig. 2 and Fig. 3 are reversed, and that micrometers (µm) are mislabeled as meters (m).]

The authors show that because MWNT's are electrically conductive, they can also be used as a tip for STM (scanning tunneling microscopy).


August, 1996.

NPR offers both the wonder of atomic scale technology
and bogus criticisms of nanotechnology

During July National Public Radio Morning Edition aired a four-part series on the frontiers of miniaturization. This series is available at the RealAudio Web site as audio that can be played using the RealAudio Player. In addition to downloading the player, it is necessary to register a user name and password at the site in order to listen to the NPR segment. Parts one and two (on July 15 and 16) dealt with computer chips and micromachinery, respectively.

Part three of the series (July 17) deals with moving individual atoms around and considers the idea that useful devices could be assembled one atom at a time. The first minute is devoted to describing how small atoms are compared to a human hair and to the tiniest features on a computer chip.

Moving atoms with a scanning tunneling microscope

About half of the eight minute-segment is devoted to a vivid demonstration, provided by Don Eigler of IBM's Almaden Research Center, that atoms are indeed real physical objects that can be manipulated by using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The demonstration is quite vivid over the radio because Eigler has his STM connected to a stereo to make a tone that reflects the strength of the tunneling current. This current increases as the distance decreases between the STM's single-atom tip and the surface being imaged, only a few atomic diameters away.

As Eigler moves the tip closer to an atom of gadolinium (Gd) on a niobium (Nb) surface, an atom on the tip begins to bond to the Gd atom and pull it sideways across the Nb surface (at cryogenic temparatures and in a vacuum). The audience is rewarded with solid "thunks" as the Gd atom is pulled across the unit cells formed by the spaces between the Nb atoms on the surface. The tip then releases the Gd atom at a new location on the Nb surface.

When Eigler hands over the computer mouse to the reporter (Dan Charles), the audience is given a solid, if vicarious, taste of the wonder of manipulating individual atoms. Eigler to Charles: "What you really need to see right now is the look on your face when you were moving an atom! What you experienced while you are doing that is something that we experience also -- the enormity [sic] of what you are actually doing, of just taking an atom and putting it where you want it to go. You are controlling the structure of matter on the atomic level."

Building devices with individual atoms

The reporter links Eigler's demonstration with Richard Feynman's 1959 speech which presented the idea of building things out of individual atoms. Though it portrays working with individual atoms as a "fanciful notion" introduced "just for fun" in 1959, the show makes clear that IBM today supports Eigler's work as technology that might help with the race to miniaturize computer chips and magnetic disk drives. As such devices shrink, "ultimately all the atoms are at or very near a surface or interface." Thus Eigler sees himself not as building devices to do useful work, but as studying the behavior of atoms on surfaces.

The NPR reporter credits experiments like Eigler's with reviving "interest in Richard Feynman's original idea, the dream of creating any material, any microscopic machine, by assembling it bit by bit, atom by atom." Without mentioning any specific researcher, Charles reports that this idea has "acquired a name -- nanotechnology", and that the most ambitious vision of nanotechnology foresees billions of atomic scale machines cleaning up pollution, preventing aging by repairing damaged cells, and assembling more machines like themselves.

Skepticism based upon discrediting arguments that have not been made

NPR reports that researchers who are actually building nanometer-sized things are very skeptical of this ambitious nanotechnology scenario. As an example, Bob Celotta, group leader in the electron physics group of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington, DC, "It is so difficult to see exactly how that would be done. I don't know where to really begin doing research on it." He continues to explain that the world of nanostructures is a different world, giving the example that a copper wire only a nanometer across does not have the same properties as macroscopic copper wire. "It might not conduct electricity, for example."

NPR's reporter goes on to say that atomic-scale devices follow a completely different set of rules: "... the mysterious principles of quantum mechanics. In this world, subatomic particles like an electron don't necessarily exist in one place at one time. They can appear on both sides of a barrier they can't actually cross." Celotta is said to speculate that it is conceivable that, instead of being "baffled" by these quantum effects, we might some day understand how to use them to advantage to actually build things out of atoms. NPR's Dan Charles concludes that, although Richard Feynman pointed out that building things out of atoms does not violate any laws of nature, "... right now it is more science fiction than science."

The real world of nanotechnology

Given the conclusion that building things out of atoms is science fiction, it is particularly ironic that the announcer's next sentence is to state that the fourth and final part of the series, broadcast two days later on July 19, will exam "the real world of nanotechnology, inside our bodies."

The fourth segment is indeed an informative description of how advances in x-ray crystallography are providing new insights into the molecules that are described as the engines of life. It is stated that every molecule does what it does because of its shape, and examples are given that include the structure of a cold virus, how the cholera toxin works, and the successful search for inhibitors of HIV protease enzyme based upon a knowledge of the protease molecular structure.

In contrast to the skepticism expressed in the previous segment about building machinery out of atoms, we find in this segment that molecular machinery does indeed exist, and that the interactions between the surfaces of molecules are responsible for everything that the basic machinery of life accomplishes. Those involved in the NPR program appear to be ignorant of the fact that the "most ambitious vision of nanotechnology" is based upon ideas published in 1981, two years before the debut of the scanning tunneling microscope. This work proposed a path to engineering molecular machinery based upon a novel approach to designing molecular machinery of the type used by living systems.

The STM may or may not turn out to play an important role in the path to molecular manufacturing, but the reasons for skepticism, advanced on the NPR program, about the ambitious vision of nanotechnology have nothing to do with serious proposals that have been made for molecular nanotechnology. In Engines of Creation Drexler has dealt in a general way with the extent to which quantum uncertainty limits our ability to design molecular machinery. He deals with this issue in more technical detail in Nanosystems, and in Chapter 2 of Nanosystems he explicity deals with the issue of scaling from macroscopic to atomic dimensions, and why one does not design molecular machinery around, for example, the ability of copper wire to conduct electricity.

Like other skeptics about nanotechnology (see Merkle's discussion of "nanocritics" and the debate between Scientific American and Foresight), these skeptics appear not to have read the proposals they are criticizing. Instead they try to envision some path to what they conceive as molecular manufacturing, spot fatal flaws in their own proposals, and thus are skeptical that molecular manufacturing is possible.

-- Jim Lewis, August 11, 1996.

Investment newsletter gives balanced view of nanotechnology

The August 1996 issue of the investment newsletter Taipan ("Foresight-Courage-Profits" published by Agora, Inc., Baltimore, MD) has a short and balanced article on nanotechnology. Although the article begins with a reference to the Foresight Institute in a slightly condescending fashion as "future techies," its bottom line is "In the midst of all this, Taipan has found real, emerging potential for nanotech."

They start with the observation that today's "Chipmakers are running up against the limits of physics. ... Even today's most advanced chips are built using the microscopic equivalent of ditchdigging. .. Sooner or later, chipmakers will have to ... start crafting chips like fine masonry: from the bottom up."

Taipan cites Feynman's 1959 talk, mistakenly calling it a book, as the introduction of the nanotechnology idea, and then describes the UNC "Nanomanipulator" project (under the heading "Don't squeeze the cadmium"). They skip over various technical issues and speculate that an advanced Nanomanipulator will be able to do de novo protein design to make new drugs.

The major part of the article is about micromachinery, which they consider the fastest growing current area of "nanotech," although they do make the distinction that this is on a much larger scale than true "molecular manufacturing". They discuss briefly application of micromachinery to warfare and to aircraft wing performance.

For the moment, they expect that the major players in developing nanotechnology will be large chipmakers and government laboratories, but they promise to keep their subscribers informed of any "small, nimble companies" getting into the game.

In a sidebar, Taipan advises its readers to avoid the "torrent of nanohype" offered by the mainstream media and to go to the "scientists who are actually involved" in implementing nanotechnology. The three sources they give are:


This article contains little that will be new to Foresight members and helps to perpetuate confusion between molecular nanotechnology and micromachinery, but it presents the basic concept of building from the bottom up as worth serious consideration and points its readers towards sources of further information.

Thanks to John Quel for bringing this article to my attention.

-- Jim Lewis, August 1, 1996.

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