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Foresight Update 24

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Foresight Institute Offers $250,000 Feynman
Grand Prize For Major Advances
In Molecular Nanotechnology

Foresight Institute is offering a $250,000 cash prize to the first individual or group to achieve specific major advances in molecular nanotechnology.

To win the newly announced Feynman Grand Prize, entrants must design and construct a functional nanometer-scale robotic arm with specified performance characteristics, and also must design and construct a functional nanometer-scale computing device capable of adding two 8-bit binary numbers.

"Foresight Institute expects this large prize to attract the interest of talented people working in the many sciences and technologies bearing upon molecular nanotechnology," said K. Eric Drexler, Ph.D., Chairman of Foresight Institute.

Prizes have long played a key role in technological advancement. For example, Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic Ocean to claim a $25,000 cash prize. More recently, the £50,000 ($95,000) Kremer prize led to the realization of humanity's age-old dream of human-powered flight. "The Feynman Prize will recognize one of the most significant technological breakthroughs in human history," Drexler said. "However, the rewards awaiting those who achieve significant nanotechnology breakthroughs will be far greater than the prize itself."

Funds for the $250,000 Feynman Grand Prize have been donated to Foresight Institute by two Foresight Institute supporters - James R. Von Ehr II, formerly founder of Altsys Corporation, and currently vice president at Macromedia, a leading computer software company; and Marc Arnold, chief executive officer of Angel Technologies, a St. Louis-based wireless telecommunication company. Arnold suggested the concept at a Senior Associates meeting last November. Fund raising is continuing in an effort to increase the prize to $1 million, Drexler said.

Foresight Institute will continue to offer its biennial Feynman Prize for the most significant recent advance in nanotechnology. In recognition of pioneering work to synthesize complex three-dimensional structures built from DNA molecules, Foresight Institute awarded the 1995 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology to Nadrian C. Seeman, Ph.D., chemistry professor at New York University.

Specifications for the Feynman Grand Prize require the winning entrant to:

  • design, construct, and demonstrate the performance of a robotic arm that initially fits into a cube no larger than 100 nanometers in any dimension, meeting certain performance specifications including means of input. The intent of this prize requirement is a device demonstrating the controlled motions needed to manipulate and assemble individual atoms or molecules into larger structures, with atomic precision; and
  • design, construct, and demonstrate the performance of a computing device that fits into a cube no larger than 50 nanometers in any dimension. It must be capable of correctly adding any pair of 8-bit binary numbers, discarding overflow. The device must meet specified input and output requirements.

The Feynman Grand Prize is named in honor of Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Richard P. Feynman, who in 1959 pointed in the direction of molecular nanotechnology in a talk at California Institute of Technology, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Carl Feynman, son of the late Nobel laureate, has participated in the definition of requirements for the Feynman Grand Prize and comments, "I'm delighted that Foresight Institute chose to name this prize after my father. It will be an important prize for an important accomplishment."

Detailed technical specifications of the Feynman Grand Prize requirements will be posted on the Foresight Web site:

Foresight Update 24 - Table of Contents


Naval Research Laboratory
Surveys European Nanotechnology

by Lew Phelps

Naval Research Laboratory's comprehensive survey of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Europe outlines the scope of significant nanotechnology research in Western Europe. Indirectly, it also points to the need for Foresight Institute to continue playing a strong role in public discussion of nanotechnology-related issues.

The 152-page report, written by NRL's Associate Director of Research for Strategic Planning, William M. Tolles, covers a wide range of both "bottom up" and "top down" research efforts underway in Europe as of 1995.

"The nanoscience community is uncovering information that will make us see a world that we do not now even envision," Tolles writes in his "Conclusions" section. "With an improved view of the forces, limitations and opportunities that may be controlled through intelligent application of the laws of physics, biology and chemistry, many opportunities can be foreseen for producing new materials. These materials are the basis for new products, enhanced performance, and capabilities that may now only be envisioned. A futuristic field such as robotics, as it unfolds, will inevitably make use of a great variety of new ideas emerging from this frontier."

Tolles goes on to relay a concern expressed by many of the European scientists he interviewed for his study - that the subject of nanotechnology "could attract practitioners bent on hypothetical postulates or excessive 'salesmanship' without a realistic appraisal of the products of experimental research."

Translation: much of the scientific community is restrained in its willingness to discuss the potential applications of nanotechnology. This reticence arises out of fear of over-promising results that scientists do not believe they can deliver soon.

While valid, such views create real concern for those who believe the economic, social and political consequences of nanotechnology are too significant to be limited to verbal discussion only. Indeed, one of Foresight Institute's primary roles is to enhance awareness and discussion of nanotechnology-related issues. This role inevitably leads to discussion of technological advances that have not yet been achieved. Foresight Institute intends to continue to fulfill that role even if it sometimes appears at odds with the prevailing approach of the scientific community.

The NRL report itself covers a range of top-down research efforts in Europe, such as new means of lithography, that do not bear significantly on efforts to realize "bottom-up" molecular nanotechnology. However, it also describes significant work in Europe of interest to Foresight members, mostly in the self-assembly arena. European researchers appear "less far along in creative use of probe technology than their American counterparts," the NRL report says. The most significant work described includes:

  • Research in the Chemistry Department at the University of Birmingham, UK, is largely focused upon catenanes and rotaxanes - molecular structures with switching properties which may provide piezoelectric or photochromic behavior of interest. "In many respects, the research undertaken in this laboratory represents an attempt to transfer knowledge and techniques involving self-assembly operating in life processes to more general molecular systems not found in life," the report states. "From success in using supramolecular interactions to form unique product structures, there are thoughts of forming autocatalytic systems (or self-replicating molecular systems) in which the products would depend on the presence of a product already in the reactant mixture. In this case, the product would depend on the seed originally present. This then would resemble cell reproduction and life processes, areas of future research." (Italics added by Update for emphasis.)
  • Research at the University of Groningen (The Netherlands) is reported to be investigating organic compounds with optically active properties. These appear to have potential for reversible optical data storage applications. Staffing and funding there for nanotechnology research were reported to be expanding.
  • A "novel approach" is reported under study at the University of Twente (The Netherlands) to make molecules that may switch between two stable forms. Such molecules are based on modified calixarene structures. The molecule forms a cage that can contain an introduced molecule with a dipole moment relative to that on the outside of the cage. Aligning or opposing configurations might be induced by an applied magnetic field, creating the molecular-scale equivalent of ferroelectric materials widely used today in computer data storage. Such molecules can be switched by devices such as a scanning tunneling probe. Organic chemistry Professor David Reinhoudt has been working for two decades on molecular recognition, the report says.
  • Also in The Netherlands, the research laboratory of Royal Dutch Shell is involved in some aspects of self-assembly. Given the nature of Shell's business, it's no surprise that their main motivation for the study of nanostructures relates to emulsification of oil (such as for oil spill cleanup) and catalysis, the basis for petroleum product manufacturing. The laboratory recently upgraded its computing capability with a new IBM SP-2, rated at 6 Gflops, used for molecular dynamic simulations.
  • Some scanning probe microscopy work at the Techniche University of Munich (Germany) involves modification of a passivated amorphous silicon surface that has been doped with phosphorous. A small exposure of this surface to electrons from an STM modifies the phosphorous from P3+ to P4+, which is an insulator. The effect can be reversed by heating the surface. The applications for thermally reversible multiple-read memory are obvious.
  • The Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) is reported to be setting up a new nanofabrication facility with extensive proximal probe capabilities, including a chamber for manipulation of clusters and atoms with proximal probes. The initiative is funded by special government support (through the Dutch equivalent of the National Science Foundation) to introduce major hardware initiatives.
  • IBM in Switzerland is of course home to Dr. Heinrich Rohrer, a Nobel Laureate for his co-invention of scanning tunneling microscopy. Report author Tolles observes the irony that "The U.S. picked up on local probe techniques faster than did Europe or Japan... In Switzerland, people had many electron microscopes and were not interested in introducing a technique that was so different."
  • Elsewhere in Switzerland, the Paul Scherrer Institute (the largest government-supported Swiss laboratory) established a nanotechnology group in 1993. The group has four main areas of emphasis, including molecular work. One program involves an immunosensor in which a ferrocene molecule is found to interact with an antibody to act as a transducer.
  • Perhaps the most exciting work in Switzerland comes at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, a technical university in Zurich. Francois Deidereich, an organic chemist formerly at UCLA, leads a group of 30 people (and growing) working on chemical fabrication of nanostructures. "Steve Benner is able to fabricate interesting geometric structures from proteins containing modified base pair sequences," the report states. Efforts there include those that would fall generally into the category of supramolecular chemistry. One program under way seeks to design molecular systems to recognize cholesterol, in order to filter the substance from blood.

A good deal of the report deals with top-down research work, conducted in France, Belgium and Austria, where little bottom-up effort appears underway. The report does mention some work in Toulouse, France, to model images obtained by STM and AFM.

The 154-page report includes over 350 references to specific research.

The report is published by Naval Research Laboratory, Washington DC 20375-5320, publication NRL/FR/1003-94-9755.

Foresight Update 24 - Table of Contents


European Nanotechnology Conference

Set for April 10-11 in Copenhagen

NanoTech®, a newly formed subsidiary of BioSoft (both Danish firms), is preparing to stage a major nanotechnology conference in Copenhagen - the Continent's first, according to its sponsors. Just starting as we go to press, the planned dates are April 10-11 at Symbion, the Copenhagen Science Park. The conference will be conducted in English.

"Our intention will be to create a new European Nanotechnology Initiative (ENI) as a natural extension of our Conference," says Bent Hundrup, BioSoft Group's Research Coordination Manager, who is spearheading the conference. The ENI will be based in Copenhagen, but active from the Walther-Nernst Institute in Germany as well, he says. The goal is to "cover the European angle on future research in nanotechnology, making Europe very active, coordinated, determined and visionary." Organizers also seek to promote cooperation between industry, universities, organizations, governments, and European Union commissions and institutes.

Topics for the planned conference include many areas that will be familiar to those attending Foresight's Nanotechnology Conferences:

  • supramolecular chemistry
  • self-assembling mechanisms and technology
  • computational chemistry and molecular modeling
  • materials science
  • engineering
  • application areas (perspectives)

The list of possible attendees provided by conference organizers indicates a focus on both molecular nanotechnology and top-down approaches such as low voltage electron beam lithography. Many of the individuals cited for key research in the Naval Research Laboratory report on European nanotechnology (see related story) are on the roster of invited participants.

For further information contact:
Mr. Bent Hundrup
3 Fruebjergvej, DK-2100 0
Phone (+45) 39 17 98 28
Fax (+45) 39 27 90 11
He also lists an email address,
but at press time it was not yet operational:

Foresight Update 24 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4

From Foresight Update 24, originally published 15 April 1996.

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