The Next Frontier The Tech Sector Needs A Nanotechnology Target
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, June 21, 2001
The sputtering technology community sorely needs a major new catalyst to get growth back on track.
Nothing would be better than establishing the national goal of developing a practical, working, cost-efficient nanovehicle within 10 years.
Nanotechnology is a nascent but fast-moving science that involves manipulating materials atom by atom. The idea is to build tiny machines that are just a few atoms in size that can eventually be used for everything from hunting down cancer cells in the body to more effectively cleaning up pollution.
The potential applications of nanotechnology are endless. By manipulating atoms, it’s possible that nanomachines could eventually be used for everything from manufacturing new materials, including energy supplies, to harmlessly removing oil from the fur or feathers of endangered species, to protecting food supplies from insects or disease without toxic pesticides or chemicals. Those are just a few of the possibilities.
Creating a nanovehicle capable of navigation that can carry and deliver atom- or molecule-size payloads will be a critical milestone along that path.
It’s not as far off as you might think.
There have been a series of important research developments within recent months that create the building blocks needed to take nanotechnolgy to the next level.
At Cornell University, for example, scientists have found a way to make micro-size contraptions move, an essential part of building practical nanomachines. Meanwhile, in a development that presages how all nanomachines might eventually be made, Brandeis University researchers have figured out a rudimentary way to use nanomachines to build more nanomachines.
And just last month, scientists at IBM announced the successful creation of carbon nanotubes that make semiconductor connections just 10 nanometers in diameter possible, as compared with the 500 nanometer-size circuits on today’s most advanced microprocessors.
(A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, the width of approximately ten atoms lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. The head of a pin is about one million nanometers in diameter.)
As a field, nanotechnology is about where rocket science was at the dawn of the Space Age. Huge early investments in the space race yielded technological dividends that are only now beginning to dwindle. A similar race toward inner space will probably lead to even more lasting rewards.
Four decades ago, President John Kennedy spurred the creation of a new generation of technology by establishing the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely home before 1970. Some saw Kennedy’s target as unrealistic. But the business and scientific communities were galvanized by the goal. With astonishing speed, the foundations of what became the high-tech economy were put into place.
The moon shot didn’t lead to inexpensive space travel, as the 1960s classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey” predicted. But many parts of our economy that we now take for granted were revolutionized or reborn during the space race, including aviation, telecommunications, semiconductor fabrication, telemetry, and solar and fuel cell technologies.
The nanotechnology revolution promises to be even more exciting.
The health sciences will be transformed when it becomes possible to control the alteration of microscopic structures within living tissues. It’s hard to even guess how nanotechnology might improve materials sciences and manufacturing processes once infinitesimally small machines can create chemicals, medicines or any other physical goods.
Matter is made up of atoms. Learning how to assemble atoms on demand will give humanity a new understanding of the art of creation. At a minimum, the human race will take a giant step toward mastering its destiny when we learn how to control what happens at the atomic level.
The idea may seem preposterous, but nanotechnology has been in the scientific wind at least since the legendary physicist Richard Feynman delivered his visionary talk on the subject in 1959.
The iconoclastic Feynman was a member of the team that developed the first atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in the mid-1940’s, and also led the team that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Back in 1959, however, Feynman dreamed up a thought experiment (using logic, rather than equipment) that involved putting the contents of the encyclopedia on the head of a pin.
What intrigued Feynman was that unlike many fanciful science fiction notions such as anti-gravity machines, nanotechnology violated no known physical laws.
“I am telling you what could be done if the laws are what we think,” Feynman said at the time. “We are not doing it simply because we haven’t yet gotten around to it.”
Fortunately, many others have gotten around to it in the intervening years. But the scope of their efforts pales in comparison to the size of the opportunity.
The Bush administration has proposed a 16 percent increase in federal spending on nanotechnology research and engineering in next year’s federal budget, from $150 million to $174 million.
To put that in perspective, that’s about what it costs for a wing tip on one of the Pentagon’s 20 $2.2 billion B-2 stealth jet fighters.
Perhaps what we really need is an external threat similar to the one that touched off the space race. In that case, the launch of Russia’s Sputnik satellite scared America into taking the decisive action that eventually paid off so handsomely.
It wouldn’t be hard to gin up similar fears about what could happen if new nanotechnologies were to fall into the wrong hands. An invisible, first-generation nanoweapon could easily obliterate an entire population before they even knew they were under attack.
Concerns over safety have already led to the creation of a voluntary set of ethical guidelines for nanotechnologists. The proposed rules say a lot about what could happen if something goes wrong.
One suggested requirement, for example, is that all future nanomachines be powered by some external artificial fuel source that doesn’t exist in the natural environment, lest the tiny machines multiply out of control and take over the planet.
It would be a real shame if we had to wait for that darker side of nanotechnology to become more apparent before the field commands the higher levels of support and the regulatory oversight it deserves.
What’s more, it’s always possible that a crash 10-year program to develop a nanovehicle might not prove a complete success. But the moon landings are instructive on the value of certain types of failures.
Many ardent backers of the space program were hoping the first moon landing would lead to the discovery of rich mineral deposits, energy sources or even fresh answers to questions about the origins of life.
But when our astronauts finally got there in July, 1969 slightly ahead of Kennedy’s original timetable, they found little more than a bunch of old rocks. As is so often the case, the journey was more important than the destination.
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