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Foresight Nanotech Update 58

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A publication of the Foresight Nanotech Institute

Manipulating atoms using atom chips

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.

Anticipating advanced nanotechnology

What will advanced nanotechnology be like, and how will it transform our lives?

Reviewed by James Lewis, PhD

J. Storrs Hall
J. Storrs Hall

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?

"One of the major reasons we can talk with certainty now about the kinds of machines we will be able to build in the future is that we can design and simulate them now. A wide range of computer programs for use by chemists encodes a great deal of the knowledge they have about how atoms and molecules behave."
Page 63

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.

"Nanomachines are going to be among the most complex things that humans have ever designed … A nanomachine the size of a small grain of sand might easily contain 5 trillion parts, many of which would be moving parts. If you spread the parts out on a table to get a look at them before trying to put the machine together, and you magnified them only to the size of grains of sand, your table would have to be over 500 square feet. If you magnified them to the size of typical machine parts in a car, it would have to be more than 100 acres.

"VLSI chips such as microprocessors are among today's most complex designed machines, with millions of working parts. Even these are much too complex to design by hand, even for a large, well organized engineering team. Instead the team relies heavily on design and simulation software. There are a number of strong parallels between microchips and nanomachines."
Pages 69-70

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.

"A mechanical engineer of today, looking at (any small part of) an advanced nanomachine, would consider its design quite sketchy and pedestrian. The reason is that it will be generated automatically as part of a vast system, probably described in something like a programming language instead of anything three-dimensional. The designer will have written, essentially, what she wanted the machine to do, rather than trying to describe the low-level mechanism to do it.

"Indeed, the designer might not even know (or care) whether she is describing hardware or writing software. Suppose she is designing a machine that will perform a certain motion. She describes the motion she wants, and the design software decides whether it will be a clever linkage, a more straightforward linkage driven by cams, a general arm driven by stepper motors controlled by a microprocessor, or some combination."
Page 72

Dr. Hall describes advanced nanotechnology rather than the nanoscience and nanotechnology applications of today:

"Nanotechnology is not a set of particular techniques, devices, or products. It is, rather, the set of capabilities that we will have when our technology gets near the limits set by atomic physics. We can make predictions for such a technology without knowing the specifics of how it will be achieved. We can, for example, know the strength of a substance with a given pattern of atoms and covalent bonds without knowing the process by which it was formed."
Page 75

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.

"Most of the elements — parts and mechanisms — of macroscopic machines can be scaled to work at molecular size, like sleeve bearings, or redesigned to, like electric motors. The few that can't, like centrifugal pumps, have substitutes — and there are many new designs, like sorting rotors, that don't have any macroscopic parallel at all. We can confidently expect to be able to design and build machine systems at the nanoscale with a wide variety of capabilities and applications, and in particular, to design and build manufacturing systems."
Page 90

Analysis of the set of capabilities that advanced nanotechnology will present produces surprising (and sometimes amusing) conclusions.

"Using figures from Drexler's Nanosystems, we can estimate that a 100-kilowatt engine, as used by a car or light aircraft, would weigh in at about 50 grams (1.5 ounces)."
Page 99

"An amusing thing happened when I was doing the engineering calculations for the flying cars that appear later in the book. I had made a collection of existing flying machine designs, and a few flying cars from fiction. Generally the "serious" fictional ones followed the same general form as the real aircraft. A few didn't, seeming to follow the whimsy of the illustrator: the most recognizable of these is the Jetsons' car from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon. After doing the calculations, I realized that only the Jetsons got it right; the engines would actually be the size of the silly little pods shown in the cartoons, if not smaller."
Page 100

Why does building to atomic precision produce such astounding capabilities?

"… the control of matter in a digital way is exactly what nanotechnology is all about.

… the atomic scale is where matter is digital. Atoms come in a small number of discrete types, and form bonds in a small number of fairly simple ways. Atoms don't wear out, and atoms of the same kind are all exactly the same. … To make a part that is just the same as another in a molecular machine, you take the same kinds of atoms and connect them with the same pattern of bonds. Then, in a very strong and useful sense, the new part is exactly the same as the old.

"… no two macroscopic parts are ever actually the same. … Not only does this mean that two parts won't act exactly the same, but that no part is exactly what was designed. Thus machines aren't as smooth, quiet, or efficient as they could be.

"A lot of properties of everyday matter can vary with age and wear. An atomically precise part cannot wear: either all the atoms and bonds are there that are supposed to be, or it's broken. Covalent bonds between atoms in molecules don't fatigue… .When nanotechnology makes machines cheaper and more reliable, it will be because of the digital nature of matter at the atomic scale."
Page 107

The second half of Nanofuture provides a tour of what advanced nanotechnology will bring. For example, food:

"Molecular synthesis will be able to make foods that are considerably closer to natural ones than current processed products. You can eat meats no animals were killed to obtain, and crops no wildlife habitat was displaced to grow. No release of genetically modified organisms into the environment will be necessary to include as much of whatever vitamins and nutrients you need into whatever you like to eat. And the foods will be synthesized fresh just before being cooked or eaten, with no need even for a refrigerator. Indeed they could simply be synthesized cooked, with no need for a stove."
Page 133

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.

"If, on the other hand, nanotechnology is developed evenly so that the mainstream, in general, has the same level of capability as rogue states and rogue groups, there's no great problem. Nanotech threats that would be catastrophic to a world equipped only with conventional bulk technology, will instead be simply spills to be mopped up, fires to be put out, and generally preventable by ordinary hygiene and maintenance."
Page 223.

"The real dangers that will come with nanotechnology are not the kind of things that play well on a movie screen or can be explained in sound bites. They are not dangers from the technology itself, but the effects of shortsightness and greed in the face of a revolution in human affairs. …

"One of the best ways to prevent, or at least minimize, strife as nanotechnology is developed, is for there to be a broad understanding of what benefits it can bring, and what the dangers really are. If nanotech remains the dimly understood magic of a powerful few, trouble lies ahead. But if people widely understand how personal manufacturing technology can bring independence and a comfortable lifestyle to everyone, and the way is made clear for this to happen, cooperation — and sanity — may just prevail."
Page 239

Foresight Nanotech Update 58 Spring 2007

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