By Chris Stamper
Imagine surgical tools that can fight disease at a molecular
level. Imagine computers smaller than a human cell and microscopic, superefficient
manufacturing tools that cut pollution.
Those are the goals of nanotechnology,
the futuristic hybrid science that will one day blend engineering and chemistry
to build products at the molecular — or even atomic — level.
Currently, organizations from
IBM and Lucent to the National Science Foundation and NASA are investigating
the possibilities of nanotechnology. The science is mostly experimental,
carried out with computer models and high-powered microscopes. So far,
the practical results have included microscopic electronic components called
micromachined electromechanical systems. Their most common use is in car
air bag sensors.
Ralph Merkle, a researcher at
Xerox’s Palo Alto research facility, compares nanotechnology in 1998 to
aviation in the late 19th century. The revolution in manipulating materials
too small to see is right around the next scientific bend.
“Nature has given us Lego blocks
and we can’t move them the way we want,” Merkle says. “It’s like we have
boxing gloves on.”
Out of Thin
Nanotechnology’s primary goal is reproducing natural
processes. If trees can make wood without a factory, Merkle and his colleagues
argue, people can produce strong materials using efficient, small-scale
molecular “machines.” Diamonds, for example, could in theory be made by
rearranging carbon atoms. The problem is fashioning microtools that can
push atoms around with precision.
To make ever-smaller components,
researchers are developing minuscule building blocks called buckyballs
Buckyballs are named for the
visionary architect/engineer R. Buckminister Fuller, the designer of the
geodesic dome. Infinitesimal soccer ball-shaped clumps of 60 carbon atoms,
they could be used to make everything from plastics to batteries. Stretched
out into nanotubes, they are 100 times stronger than steel, yet six times
lighter. Nanotechnology researchers envision nanotubes as the connectors
and cables in future miniaturized electronics.
“You can use them as TinkerToys
to build things with, like little strings,” explains Donald Noid, a senior
scientist at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory .
Nanotechnologists imagine a
day when these carbon building blocks can be used to make diamonds cheap
and plentiful. Later on, they hope to build tiny devices that can be used
to build other, larger devices.
“The ultimate fantasy is to
have a machine the size of a sugar cube that has a solar panel that sucks
carbon dioxide out of the air, strips the oxygen away and starts building,”
Jim Von Her, president of Zybex, a small nanotechnology startup in Richardson,
Texas. “I can imagine a house made out of air and sunlight.”
If that sounds preposterous,
listen to Bill Spence, editor of NanoTechnology Magazine in Honolulu.
Not only does he predict micromanufacturing sites in private homes, where
people build their own wristwatches and computers as easily as they’d print
out this article; Spence suggests that nanotechnology could lead to immortality,
once tiny devices can start tinkering with a human’s genetic and cellular
Not So Fast
Manual labor — all manual labor, including surgery —
could become obsolete, according to these theories.
“What happens when you can get
a box that looks like a microwave oven where atoms can go in one side and
consumer products go out the other?” Spence asks. “There won’t be any more
autoworkers. There will be just auto designers.”
Poppycock, says Charles Joslin,
editor of “Nanotech Alert,” a newsletter produced by John Wiley & Sons,
an Englewood, N.J.-based technology publisher. “People talk about a million
tiny robots in your house designing a free refrigerator; that’s nonsense.”
Nevertheless, governments around
the world are already pumping around $430 million annually into nanotech
research. Nanotechnology may not re-engineer human existence, but over
the next few decades it may well yield electronic components that could
revolutionize manufacturing processes.
And that’s no small thing.