Foresight Update 26
A publication of the Foresight Institute
by Lew Phelps
Al Globus of MRJ Inc. and Creon Levit of NASA, both at NASA's Numerical Aerodynamic Simulation Systems Division (NAS), lead this effort. NAS is NASA's primary supercomputer center. "NASA is putting significant resources into nanotechnology research," Globus says. "Some forms of nanotechnology appear to have enormous potential to improve aerospace and computer systems. Computational nanotechnology--the design and simulation of programmable molecular machines--is crucial to progress."
Globus and Levit were originally inspired to enter the field when computational nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle of Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) spoke on the topic at NAS on May 9, 1996. Merkle lent Globus a copy of Eric Drexler's Nanosystems. He immediately saw the potential for making very strong materials needed in aerospace applications. Merkle has worked closely with Globus and Levit since then and is impressed with the progress NAS has been making. "The NASA project is one of the most significant centers for research in computational nanotechnology in the world. Their research is making pivotal contributions to the development of molecular manufacturing," Merkle says.
Globus sees real merit in a fullerene-based approach to nanotechnology. "Fullerenes are being made in the laboratory every day; they're even available in bulk quantity through commercial sources. So as we find ways to create components such as gears using fullerenes and synthetic chemistry procedures, we might be able to assemble capable nanomachines more easily than through other routes. Instead of building a car by gluing tiny bits of rubber together to form a tire, we'd have the whole tire ready to put on the assembly line. We might be able to prefabricate components that would be relatively easy to assemble into a complex machine."
NASA has recognized NASA Ames as NASA's Information Center of Excellence. This means the organization has been designated as the primary site for computational efforts. Its supercomputer capability arose from work in fluid dynamics. About a year ago, Globus and his colleagues noticed the benefits of merging that capability with the world-class computational chemists also working at NASA. Given NASA's charter as an organization that undertakes long term research with high risk, a move into computational nanotechnology seemed natural.
Not surprisingly, the payoff Globus most desires is enhanced ability to colonize space. For example, sufficiently strong cable would allow creation of an "orbital tower" --basically a long cable suspended from a geosynchronous satellite to the ground. Made from steel, such a cable would be one meter in diameter at sea level but 10 kilometers or so in diameter at its geosynchronous orbital end. That clearly is infeasible. A cable made from vastly stronger diamondoid materials, however, could be made only 22 meters wide at the "top." Sufficient carbon could be extracted from a single kilometer-diameter carbonaceous asteroid to provide all needed raw material, he calculates.
Globus and his colleagues have created a substantial World Wide Web presence discussing the broad space travel applications and more focused nanotechnological issues. It includes links to the Web-based conference. See Web Watch on page 9 of this issue of Foresight Update for details.
Researchers at Rice University, led by chemistry and physics professor Richard E. Smalley, have reported advances in creation of "ropes" of single-wall nanotubes, as described in Chemical and Engineering News (July 29, 1996), and commented upon in Nature (382: 207 1996). The work was published in Science (273: 483-487 1996) and a web version is available at Prof. Smalley's web site. Smalley's group has optimized a synthetic method of producing single-wall nanotubes using two different laser pulses to vaporize a graphite/metal composite rod inside a flow tube heated to 1200° C. in an oven. The metal, a 50/50 mixture of cobalt and nickel, catalyzes 70% to 90% of the carbon to form single-wall (10,10) nanotubes with a uniform diameter of 13.8Å. These "buckytubes" grew and agglomerated in the gas phase and were deposited on a cooled surface in the form of a felt mat.
"The most remarkable thing about these nanotubes is that they are in the form of ropes," of 100 to 500 nanotubes packed "precisely like toothpicks in a box," Smalley told C&EN. Single ropes have been measured to be nearly as electrically conductive as copper. The carbon (10,10) nanotube is predicted by theorists to be metallic and have optimal stiffness.
Near-term applications of the carbon nanotubes include use of a single nanotube as the tip of an atomic force microscope, Smalley said. Moreover, he's expecting his or some other lab to produce centimeter lengths of metallic nanotubes this year--only a short step from producing continuous lengths that can be wound in a spool.
Smalley's nanotubes have two major characteristics in common with structures for molecular nanotechnology: lateral scale and stiffness. Interest within the research and business communities in stiff carbon-based structures with nanometer scale critical dimensions (similar to structures that will eventually be desirable for molecular machinery) is likely to draw more R&D funding into nanotechnology-related research.
This year's Senior Associates Gathering promises more information--and more fun--than even its most successful predecessors. A separate but parallel Foresight Tenth Anniversary Reception and Dinner will celebrate a decade of success and growth of the organization. The events will be held October 18-20 in Palo Alto.
The Senior Associates Gathering is open to all Senior Associates--those who pledge donations at various levels from $250 to $5,000 a year for five years--including those who join the Senior Associates before the Gathering. Anyone interested can contact the Foresight Institute office for more information (and also see the accompanying box).
The Tenth Anniversary Dinner will be held at a separate location. The dinner party will be limited to a maximum of 70 guests to allow intense interaction and discussion between guests. The dinner cost will be $175 per plate, with an additional $100 for a separate cocktail reception preceding the dinner. Contact the Foresight office for details.
The Senior Associates gathering will be held at the Palo Alto/Stanford Holiday Inn, beginning Friday night and continuing through Sunday afternoon. Friday night includes a welcoming reception. Saturday's program will focus on technological matters:
Sunday's sessions concentrate on communication of nanotechnology concepts and taking action:
Foresight/IMM/CCIT Senior Associate Gathering
Palo Alto/Stanford Holiday Inn, Palo Alto,
From Foresight Update 26, originally published 15 September 1996.
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