Foresight Update 18

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Smalley on Nanotechnology

Prof. Richard Smalley will lead a new, multidisciplinary nanotechnology program at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Before Rice University announced it would build a nanotechnology lab, Rice News interviewed Richard E. Smalley, the Norman and Gene Hackerman Professor of Chemistry and a professor of physics, about the proposed program. Reprinted with permission from Rice News, Nov. 11, 1993.

Rice News: What is nanoscience and nanotechnology?

Richard Smalley: It comes from the word nanometer. In the context that's used here, nanometer means 10 to the minus nine or a billionth of a meter. If you can imagine a thousandth of a millimeter, then that's a micron. A micron is the characteristic size of structures that are built on computers.

RN: Like semiconductor computer chips?

RS: Yes, semiconductor integrated circuits. Logic and storage elements are on the order of a micron in size. Now, if you can imagine a micron and then squeeze down to a thousandth of that, then that is a nanometer. At Rice, we know what a nanometer is. It's almost exactly the size of a buckyball. And that' s about three to 10 times bigger than the size of an atom, depending on which atom you're talking about.

The idea behind nanotechnology is ultimately, and maybe sometime very soon, to custom design the materials around us atom by atom, much like an architect designs a building. Except now the building materials will be atoms rather than bricks or steel beams. When you design a building, you don't just throw a bunch of stuff down and hope that you get lucky. You design it so the economy, function, and beauty is all completely crafted. It is an artificial object that may be artistic but is also built to have certain functions. The idea of nanotechnology is to learn how to do this on the atomic scale.

RN: What's the advantage of working at the molecular and atomic level as opposed to the much bigger levels at which we usually work?

RS: Because that's really where the action is. Everything is made up of atoms. But normally it is only on a scale from 1,000 to over 1 million times bigger that you actually start forming them into useful objects. The properties of these objects are determined on the nanometer scale, but only in a way over which we have little control. To get down there where the atoms live and to put them in particular patterns, then you can change the way the overall object behaves.

RN: You have ultimate control?

RS: As much control as you're going to get. And since you will have so much control it will be critical to know what to do with it. Much like when you build a bridge. Before you actually construct it, you take this very carefully worked-out design and you submit it to computer calculations to make sure it won't fall down. In the same sense, when we actually get to the point that we start building things on a nanometer scale, we'll have to be able to predict their performance. We will have to describe this object that we're going to build somehow to a computer. And be able to have that computer chew on the problem and ultimately tell us how it's going to work.

RN: So computer modeling will play an important part in this?

RS: That's right. We still have a long way to go in calculating the behavior of atoms when they stick together in various structures. This is the whole substance and reason of a field called quantum chemistry. It involves demanding calculations. In fact, some of them are so demanding that they simply just can't be done now on computers. However, a lot of progress has been made, an amazing amount, in the past 30 years. And we're getting close.

RN: Could you talk about the scope of interest in nanotechnology across the country? Where are some of the centers of interest, and why is it a word that hasn't even made it into scientific dictionaries? Could you give us some idea of why this is so important and how this has come about?

RS: There is no single center that is completely devoted to this. Cornell has an NSF-funded submicron facility that I think they are now calling a nanoscale fabrication facility. Santa Barbara has an institute in submicron/nanoscale physics. All of the really large fundamental research entities associated with places like IBM or NEC in Japan have researchers who are very active on this nanofrontier. Most major research universities have scientists generally in physics or materials science or electrical engineering who are active in this field. But I don't know of any university that has embraced this major theme as broadly across campus as Rice is doing.

If you think about this business of building objects that exist and function on a nanometer scale where every atom is in a particular place to serve a function, then all the machinery in each of our cells basically is that—everything in nature, we ourselves.

This is the wet side of nanotechnology, and by wet I mean specifically water. Only water. Although there are many life forms on this planet and they eat various things, some of them don't need oxygen, but some do. Some can live off sulfur, others can live off other energy sources, but all these life forms function only in water.

What we'd like to do is have a technology to build things on the same principle of one atom at a time in the right place but not to have to have water around. That is what we call the dry side of this huge area of nanotechnology.

What's the virtue of this? Well, one of the key virtues is metallic behavior. Metals are great but on a nanometer scale they react explosively with water. If we could develop a dry nanotechnology for making tiny metallic objects, there's a whole range of incredibly important technologies that would result. For example, how about a metallic wire that is only a nanometer in diameter. In fact, that is what we are trying to produce here in our laboratory with long buckytubes we call buckyfibers. The fibers are made out of carbon in a hexagonal lattice wrapped around to make a long hollow tube sort of like a soda straw. The carbon tube itself is unreactive with water, but it is also impenetrable. You could have water on the outside but prevent it from ever getting to the inside.

So that allows you to put metal atoms in the inside of this buckytube or fiber and seal it up. It would be a metallic wire that would actually be quite chemically inert but would conduct electricity on a nanometer scale. It turns out that this wire, if you could make it, would have an electrical conductivity greater than copper. At least two times greater for sure, and perhaps dramatically greater at room temperature.

It would have a tensile strength, the strength you'd have to pull on it before it breaks, a hundred times stronger than steel. In fact, it would have the highest tensile strength of any wire you could ever make out of anything. That's because the carbon atoms in these buckyfibers have been nanoengineered to be the strongest bonding arrangement that is possible.

RN: What are some of the benefits to society of that type of technology?

RS: New batteries or objects that would absorb sunlight and mimic photosynthesis, bubbling off hydrogen or oxygen. That would allow you to efficiently convert sunlight to stored energy. Even without the metal on the inside this long buckytube would be the strongest possible structural fiber. You could make new aircraft wings. If you could make it cheaply, it would be competitive with steel, in fact, more than competitive with steel.

If you could connect a little nanometer scale probe to a long wire you would have the essence of the nanosensor. The nanosensor may actually be designed to work in regular body fluid. We could actually go inside the body and sense real living cells or sit there and monitor the stuff that comes by in your blood stream.

We tend to bandy the term nanotechnology about more than nanoscience or nanoengineering primarily because in one word nanotechnology comprises both the fundamental intellectual aspect of this new field and the fact that it is relevant to society.

It's important that we get basic science more immediately coupled to the real world. Nanotechnology has that aspect to it. Now, there are many scientists who are engaged in pure nanoscale science but maybe in an area where it is not yet at all clear how it will connect to something that actually goes out and has a practical function. It is out of some of this basic nanoscience that future practical technologies will arise. When we say nanotechnology, that does not mean we exclude nanoscience. In fact, it must be included.

RN: What are the implications for Rice? Why is this technology a good fit for Rice, and why are we constructing a building and drawing these people together? Explain the particular strengths we have at Rice and what's going to happen here.

RS: Actually, much of the activity that goes on right now at Rice in six departments—physics, chemistry, and biochemistry on the science side and electrical engineering, materials science, and chemical engineering on the engineering side—is really involved in nanoscale science already.

If in fact this revolution of learning how to manipulate things on a nanometer scale much like you build bridges really starts to happen, it's going to have vast impact on all of these departments. It makes great sense, if we are within a decade of two that this is going to break out, to start arranging the organization of the university and the way we pick our faculty and the facilities we provide so that we are part of the future rather than part of the past.

Obviously the wet side is very important. Rice has a major investment on the wet side in the form of the Institutes of Biosciences and Bioengineering. The dry side is also terrifically important, and we already have great strengths on which to build primarily through the Rice Quantum Institute and CITI. Certainly the success here at Rice with the fullerenes gives us a strategic advantage over other universities. We're also very well set up because of the long history we have in atomic, molecular and surface physics, and laser science. It is out of just such a group of scientists and engineers that probes on the nanometer scale will naturally come.

RN: This technology and emphasis will affect the curriculum, too. My understanding is that an important component of this building will be undergraduate teaching labs. How do you see this technology affecting not only what we teach to graduate students but to undergraduates?

RS: The blunt, simple answer is that nanotechnology is where the action will be. We must have that reflected in the undergraduate curriculum. After all, the students come here not just to learn about what's in books but to know what's going to happen in the real world and to be preparing themselves to think along these lines.

It's important to pick problems that are going to lead some place, that are going to have impact. Since science is such an expensive operation these days, it cannot be funded simply as an exercise of artistic enjoyment. It is funded at a high level because it is important to solving the practical needs of society. So from the very word nanotechnology you can see how it tries to connect to society as a whole. As the research that goes on in the university becomes more relevant in society it should be reflected in the curriculum. Why should we be teaching students to become scientists and engineers in the old technology? They should be part of the future.

The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University

Foresight Update 18 - Table of Contents


Media Watch

The Colorado School of Mines Quarterly Review of Engineering, Science, Education and Research (No. 3, 1993) published a brief survey of molecular nanotechnology by physics professor Jerome Morse.

The January issue of the CPSR/Palo Alto chapter newsletter featured an interview of Ted Kaehler, who leads the area's most popular CPSR special interest group. Focused on nanotechnology, the group has met every two weeks since 1990 to discuss both technical and social aspects. CPSR/Palo Alto is a chapter of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

The Jan. 26 Inside R&D reports that Italy is considering nanotechnology as one of its long-term strategic research programs.

Technology Review's January issue featured an article on buckyballs and their potential use in nanotechnology.

The Feb. 8 PC Magazine covered nanotechnology, quoting Dr. Ralph Merkle, citing Nanosystems, and giving an estimated date of arrival between 2010 and 2020.

Nanotechnology was the cover story of the Jan/Feb issue of Midnight Engineering. Unfortunately, there were numerous errors, and the illustrations were artistic rather than informative. (Journalists wishing to head off this situation in their work are encouraged to fax drafts of articles and artwork to Foresight for prompt comment. Beware: even the best articles can be ruined with bad artwork; we suggest that writers request approval on artwork to appear with their articles.)

Foresight Update 18 - Table of Contents


Perspective: Grey Calls for Bold Investment in Nanotechnology

Dr. François Grey joined the Aono Atomcraft Project in 1991, after completing post-doctoral work at Risø National Laboratory in Denmark. He also writes regularly for the Science and Technology section of The Economist. The following excerpt is taken from his October 1993 paper "STM-Based Nanotechnology: The Japanese Challenge," Advanced Materials, Vol. 5, No. 10, pp.704-710.

"As far as establishing national nanotechnology projects is concerned, Japan seems to have already taken the lead. There is as yet nothing comparable to either the Atomcraft Project or the new MITI project in the U.S., although there are several U.S. research centers where very substantial efforts in the area are underway, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland being a good example. There is also evidence that the current U.S. Administration favors concentrated, long-term investment in this field [ref: Drexler's Senate testimony and then-Senator Al Gore's responses: Testimony of the Senate hearings on New Technologies for a Sustainable World, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 1992].

"In Europe, efforts seem considerably more diffuse... There seems to be no organized attempt to invest in ambitious long-term fundamental research projects in the area of nanotechnology. At this level, there may be a good deal to learn from the bold Japanese approach. STM-based nanotechnology is a highly competitive field evolving at a great pace. These are in many ways the pioneering days, and the biggest rewards will go to the boldest pioneers."

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From Foresight Update 18, originally published 15 April 1994.