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Scientific American, September 2001 issue

[The term "nanotechnology" was conceived in 1974 by Norio Taniguchi to signify


machining with tolerances of less than a micron.]

Little Big Science

Nanotechnology is all the rage. But will it


meet its ambitious goals? And what the heck
is it? By Gary Stix
Albert Einstein, as part of his doctoral dissertation,
calculated the size of a single sugar molecule from
experimental data on the diffusion of sugar in
water. His work showed that each molecule
measures about a nanometer in diameter.
Nanotechnology has become the most highly
energized discipline in science and technology. It
borrows liberally from condensed-matter physics,
engineering, molecular biology and large swaths of
chemistry.
Researchers
who
once
called
themselves
materials
scientists
or
organic
chemists have transmuted into nanotechnologists.

National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)


= a multiagency program intended to provide a big
funding boost to nanoscience and engineering
What's in a Name?
Some of nanotechnology isn't nano, dealing
instead with structures on the micron scale
(millionths of a meter), 1,000 times or more larger
than a nm. Also, nanotechnology, in many cases,
isn't technology. Rather it involves basic research
on structures having at least one dimension of
about one to several hundred nm.
nanoworld = a weird borderland between the realm of
individual atoms/molecules and the macroworld

As defined by Mihail C. Roco, National Science


Foundation (NSF) official, the emerging field deals
with materials and systems having these key
properties: they have at least one dimension of
about one to 100nm, they are designed through
processes that exhibit fundamental control over
the physical and chemical attributes of molecularscale structures, and they can be combined to
form larger structures.
The icons of this revolution are scanning probe
microscopes the scanning tunneling microscope
and the atomic force microscope, among others
capable of creating pictures of individual atoms or
moving them from place to place.
Varied approaches to fabricating nanostructures:
a. top-down = chisel out or add bulk
material to a surface; ex: microchips (w/
circuit lines of little more than 100nm)
b. bottom-up = use self-assembly processes
to put together larger structures atoms
or
molecules
that
make
ordered
arrangements spontaneously given the
right conditions; ex: nanotubes (graphite
cylinders w/ unusual electrical properties)

Beyond Silicon
Computer
companies
with
large
research
laboratories, such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard,
have substantial nano programs. No one knows
whether
manufacturing
electronics
using
nanotubes or some other novel material will allow
the relentless improvements in chip performance
without a corresponding increase in cost that
characterizes silicon chipmaking.
Even if molecular-scale transistors don't crunch
zeroes and ones in the Pentium XXV, the
electronics fashioned by nanotechnologists may
make their way into devices that reveal the secrets
of the ultimate small machine: the biological cell.
Nanophase Technologies produces nanosize zinc oxide particles for use in sunscreen,
making
the
usually
white-colored
cream
transparent because the tiny particles don't scatter
visible light
The [US] government envisages that
nanostructured materials may help reduce the
size, weight and power requirements of spacecraft,
create green manufacturing processes that
minimize the generation of unwanted by-products,
and form the basis of molecularly engineered
biodegradable pesticides.
Nanodreams
In 1986 five years after IBM researchers Gerd
Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning
tunneling microscope, which garnered them the
Nobel Prize the book Engines of Creation, by
K. Eric Drexler, created a sensation for its
depiction of godlike control over matter. The book
describes self-replicating nanomachines that could
produce virtually any material good, while
reversing global warming, curing disease and
dramatically extending life spans.
A spreading mass of self-replicating robots what
Drexler has labeled " gray goo" could pose
enough of a threat to society, Billy Joy (chief
scientist of Sun Microsystems) mused, that we
should
consider
stopping
development
of
nanotechnology. But that suggestion diverts
attention from the real nano goo: chemical and
biological weapons.
Nanotech a grand unifier of the applied
sciences?
A semiconductor quantum dot originally developed
for electronics and now being deployed to detect
biological activity in cells is a compelling proof of
principle for these types of transdisciplinary
endeavors.

If the nano concept holds together, it


could, in fact, lay the groundwork for a new
industrial revolution.

The Once and Future Nanomachine

Biology outmatches futurists' most elaborate


fantasies for molecular robots
By George M. Whitesides
Imagining two types of small machines has
captured broad attention:
1. nanoscale submarine, w/ dimensions of
only a few billionths of a meter the
length of a few tens or hundreds of
atoms. This machine might be useful in
medicine by navigating through the blood,
seeking out diseased cells and destroying
them.
2. assembler, a more radical idea originally
proposed by futurist K. Eric Drexler
would be a new type of machine: a
universal fabricator. It would make any
structure, including itself, by atomic-scale
"pick and place": a set of nanoscale
pincers would pick individual atoms from
their environment and place them where
they should go.
Does the idea of nanoscale machines make sense?
machine = a device for performing a task

Nanoscale machines already do exist, in the form


of the functional molecular components of living
cells such as molecules of protein or RNA,
aggregates of molecules, and organelles ("little
organs") in enormous variety and sophistication.
Molecular Copy Machines
The strategy adopted by the cell to make its parts
and thus to replicate and maintain itself is
based on two ideas:
a. to
use
a
single,
conceptually
straightforward
chemical
process
(polymerization) to create large, linear
molecules
b. to build molecules that spontaneously fold
themselves
into
functional,
threedimensional structures
This two-part strategy does not require a
difficult and sophisticated 3-D pick-and-place
fabrication: it simply strings beads (for example,
amino acids) together into a necklace (a
polypeptide) and lets the necklace self-assemble
into a machine (a protein). Thus, the information
for the final,
functional,
three-dimensional
structure is coded in the sequence of the beads.
The three most important classes of molecules
in the cell DNA, RNA and proteins are all
made by this strategy; the proteins then make the
other molecules in the cell. In many instances
proteins also spontaneously associate with other
molecules proteins, nucleic acids, small
molecules to form larger functional structures.
As a strategy for building complex, three-

dimensional structures, this method of linear


synthesis followed by various levels of molecular
self-assembly is probably unbeatable for its
efficiency.
The cell is, in essence, a collection of catalysts
and other functional species sensors, structural
elements,
pumps,
motors.
Most
of
the
nanomachines in the cell are thus, ultimately,
molecular catalysts.
--------------------------------------------------------

Considering the many constraints on the


construction and operation of nanomachines, it seems
that new systems for building them might ultimately look
much like the ancient systems of biology.

--------------------------------------------------------

Nanomachines That Mimic Human-Scale


Machines
Microfabrication
has
developed
as
an
extraordinarily
successful
technology
for
manufacturing small, electronically functional
devices--transistors and the other components of
chips. The development of these so-called
microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) is
proceeding rapidly, but the functions of the
machines are still elementary, and they are micro,
not nano, machines. The first true nanoscale
MEMS
(NEMS,
or
nanoelectromechanical
systems) have been built only in the past few
years and only experimentally.
Problems
~~In fabricating nanodevices w/ moving parts:
stiction (sticking & friction)
~~In the self-replication of these systems:
complexity
if the pincers of the assemblers are to pick up
atoms with any dexterity, they should be smaller
than the atoms; atoms, esp. carbon atoms, bond
strongly to their neighbors
~~In making a nanosubmarine work (if it could be
built): random battering by water molecules
~~In detecting and destroying diseased cells in
the body: parts of the little submarine would
have to focus on finding their prey and they would
also require energy
Outdesigning Evolution
Two limiting strategies in making nanomachines:
1. to take existing nanomachines those
present in the cell and to learn from
them
~~It would be a staggering accomplishment to
mimic the simplest living cell.
2. to start from scratch and independently to
develop fundamental new types of
nanosystems
~~Machining
and
welding
do
not
have
counterparts at nanometer sizes.
Jeremy R. Knowles of Harvard University has
established that one enzyme triose phosphate
isomerase, or TIM is "perfect": that is, no catalyst
for the particular reaction catalyzed by this enzyme
could be better.

If robust self-replicating micro (or


perhaps nano) structures were ultimately to
emerge, they would probably be chemical systems
as complex as primitive bacteria.