Science of the Very Small


Promise Wonders

This "buckyball" is one of the great hopes of nanotechnology. To scientists, this clump of carbon atoms is a major building block in reproducing natural processes. Click for more molecular images. (


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 Air
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 and nanotubes. 
     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 structure. 

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. 

Search for more on:

Copyright ©1999 ABC News and Starwave Corporation. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in any form. Please click here for legal restrictions and terms of use applicable to this site. Use of this site signifies your agreement to the terms of use.