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.
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."
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
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".
MIT Technology Review Publishes Article on Molecular Nanotechnology
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.
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
Prof. Smalley energetically championed the future of
nanotechnology in an interview given to Rice News and reprinted
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
"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."
"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
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
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
[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
NPR offers both the wonder of atomic scale technology and bogus criticisms of
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
(on July 15 and 16) dealt with computer chips and micromachinery,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Investment newsletter gives balanced view of
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
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
Thanks to John Quel for bringing this article to my attention.