Foresight Update 25

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 25 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5 | Page6


Media Watch


Science Reviews Lehn's Supramolecular Chemistry

Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science, circ. 160,000) reviewed a prepublication copy of Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn's new book, Supramolecular Chemistry: Concepts and Perspectives. In the February 16, 1996, issue, reviewer Jay S. Siegel of the Department of Chemistry at the University of California at San Diego writes, "An intense concern with chemical semiotics characterizes Lehn's present research pursuits, and this comes through strongly in the discussion of molecular devices and programmed supramolecular systems. The design and development of molecular photonics, electronics, ionics and other such ramifications of the supramolecular approach, dominate [the major] chapters and therefore the book....Lehn's vision of nanochemistry and molecular machines emphasizes information, not size, and he defiantly responds to Feynman's aphorism that 'there's plenty of room at the bottom' with the riposte that 'in reaching higher levels of organization and behavior, it is clear that through supramolecular chemistry there's even more room at the top!'" This "plenty of room at the top" comment can be seen as a chemist's call for the "bottom-up" path, in which molecular objects are made increasingly large, as opposed to Feynman's 1959 talk projecting a "top-down" path involving the building of increasingly smaller robots.

Foresight Update expects to carry a substantial review of Lehn's new book in the Fall 1996 issue (Update 26).

Explosive Growth in Combinatorial Chemistry

The Wall Street Journal (circ. 1.7 million) wrote Sept. 11, 1995, about the rapid move of "combinatorial chemistry" from "the province of a few pioneering biotechnology companies into the mainstream of medicinal chemistry."

"It's a super-hot subject" says William DeGrado, a lab leader at DuPont-Merck Pharmaceutical Co. in the story. "Almost everyone is doing it."

The Journal describes combinatorial chemistry as "like a chemist's version of ordering from a Chinese restaurant menu. It allows the drug chemist to create new molecules essentially by combining a molecular fragment from Column A with one from Column B and another from Column C, and so on." The technique accelerates by a factor of 100 or more the speed at which drug companies can create variants of existing drugs, to see which variation works most effectively to treat given symptoms.

"The key that opened the way to combinatorial chemistry was found in the mid-1960s, when chemists developed a method for synthesizing molecules on the surface of tiny particles of polystyrene." In 1984, a researcher at Glaxo Inc. used the technique to create a "library" containing millions of variants of simple protein-like molecules.

"Most big drug makers initially paid little attention to the technique. That changed in 1992, when chemists at the University of California at Berkeley used the new technique to concoct variants on a small class of molecules similar to such profitable drugs as Valium," the Journal says.

Even so, the concept caught on slowly, the Journal reports. "'Two years ago, most of the other chemists at Eli Lilly were skeptical of combinatorial chemistry,' says Stephen Kaldor, head of Lilly's combinatorial-chemistry effort. 'I don't hear any skepticism anymore,' he adds," the story said.

Foresight chairman Eric Drexler comments, "Doing combinatorial chemistry is like doing evolution -- the combinatorial side provides variation, exploring a huge range of possibilities, but the results will depend on how we do the selection. In drug design, the usual goal of selection is to fit a small molecule into a site on an existing biological molecule. In machine design, the goal will be to find parts that fit together to make new, larger systems. This is a different problem, but combinatorial chemistry looks like a promising tool. It may well prove crucial."

New German Research Approach Focuses On Nanotechnology

The Economist (June 8, 1996), a highly respected policy-oriented British publication, described efforts underway in Germany to break the tight grip of established scientific research centers. "Even Germans sometimes admit that in one walk of life the German way is too stolid by half: scientific research. In part, recognition of this problem lies behind the creation of an unconventional new research institute in Bonn called CAESAR, the Centre of Advanced European Studies and Research...Its aim is to foster young scientific talent, bypassing the power of the entrenched and often unimaginative professoriat that dominates too much of German science. The most novel aspect of CAESAR is its internal organisation....(in contrast to much of German science efforts) CAESAR will largely dispense with both hierarchy and tenure. Researchers will be hired to work for five years on hot projects, (initially, probably, in nanotechnology, bioelectronics and ergonomic networking)...This approach should appeal to ambitious young German researchers who want to make a name for themselves without the overbearing patronage of a senior tenured professor." The center will receive funding from the German federal government and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, but it will be set up as a private foundation, living off interest from the original investment of about $500 million, the magazine reports.

Business Week Reports on Quest For Nanoscale Computing Technology

Business Week Magazine (circ. 1 million) reports in its July 1, 1996, issue on nano-scale computer technology, headlined, "Science's New Nano Frontier. The Quest: To build supercomputers molecule by molecule."

However, most of what Business Week described was efforts underway in "top down" technologies (such as etching) to create "Quantum Dots." The story acknowledges that top-down techniques aren't going to achieve the computer industry's ultimate need for ever-smaller devices. "For various reasons, including the difficulty of making (quantum dot) clusters exactly the same size, 'the dots are not as useful as people thought they would be,' says researcher Gilberto Medeiros-Ribeiro at Hewlett-Packard Co."

The article indirectly acknowledges the need for true molecular nanotechnology, reporting that "the notion of building tiny structures molecule by molecule, incorporating advances in chemistry, physics and materials science, is 'bound to have a tremendous payoff,' says University of Notre Dame physicist James L. Merz. The promise has led companies such as Texas Instruments, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola to back major research efforts."

BW reports on some alternatives to traditional top-down manufacturing techniques, saying, "Some researchers are spurning these techniques in favor of chemistry. For instance, Louis E. Brus, a physical chemist at Bell Labs, has pioneered a method that grows quantum dot crystals in a test tube, molecule by molecule. Using this technique, researchers have build light-emitting diodes that can be tuned to different colors. Even more exotic are the quantum structures made from single organic molecules in James M. Tour's chemistry lab at the University of South Carolina. This approach offers the tantalizing prospect of packing trillions of molecule-size devices onto a square millimeter. That single millimeter would contain 10,000 times more transistors than now found in a PC."

The article concludes saying that "researchers foresee a day when trillions of quantum dots could be stacked in layers on otherwise conventional slabs of silicon. That promises a super-computer on a pinhead -- making these exotic structures part of the hottest boomtown on the quantum frontier."

Room-Temperature Molecular Manipulation

The success of researchers at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory to mechanically position molecules at room temperature (see "Recent Progress" column for details) has gained the attention of general circulation media. "Nanotechnology continues to push the frontier," wrote Popular Mechanics (Hearst Corp., circ. 1.6 million) in its May 1996 issue. "Previous single-molecule moving efforts required either ultralow temperatures, to stop molecules from 'jittering,' or the attractive and sometimes destructive force of an electrically charged probe. Both approaches limited practical applications."

Extensive Japanese Nanotechnology Research Cataloged

The Nikkei Weekly, an English-language publication in Tokyo, carried a major story March 11, 1996, cataloging Japanese research at the nanoscale level. "Exhibiting properties unseen among the bulk materials used in today's industrial processing, these molecular structures, measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter, are being used in the lab to design compounds from the bottom up," the publication reports. "If they can come into widespread use, nanostructures promise a sea change in manufacturing and performance of devices used in everything from electronics to engines, researchers say."

The article describes the Nanospace Lab project's work to "develop intelligent materials that can evaluate and respond to surrounding conditions like a living organism." Computer memory applications are envisioned.

The Japanese government has funded a number of research efforts in the first half of the 1990s, including the Aono Atomcraft project (described in Update 24), the story says. "Among private industry, where there is also much interest in nanotechnologies, the most popular is probably the 'quantum box.' A quantum box, or quantum dot, is a semiconductor structure so small that it traps an electron in a one-dimensional space." Three major Japanese electronics firms (Fujitsu, Sanyo and Nippon T&T) have fabricated quantum boxes, the article says, "which they hope to exploit to develop lasers that require only a trace amount of current to emit light. Again, potential computing and memory applications abound with the technology.

"Despite all the optimism and research, practical devices based on nanostructures will probably not begin appearing until after the year 2000," the story says.

Technology Review Criticizes Regis's Nano

Following a technique we've seen elsewhere (including in Nature (circ. 52,000) and IEEE Spectrum (circ. 291,000), Technology Review (MIT, circ. 90,000) used a review of the book Nano by Ed Regis to raise a predictable set of straw-man objections to nanotechnology concepts. "Drexler and his followers at the Foresight Institute have virtually no idea of how any of this [nanotechnology] will be done," reviewer Robert J. Crawford writes. Apparently, Crawford hasn't bothered to read any of the field's technical underpinnings, such as Drexler's Nanosystems. Crawford is assistant director of the Office for Sponsored Research at Harvard University.

The frequently negative review of Regis' book by publications within the science community make it clear that this is not the best book for Foresight members to recommend to technical readers as an introduction to the concepts of nanotechnology. To be sure, the book wasn't intended as a technical primer, but more a report on the personalities and science politics involved in an emerging field of R&D. To that extent, the critics are unjustified in their assaults; scientifically-oriented publications such as Technology Review should review technical books on nanotechnology, rather than object to popular books because they are insufficiently technical.

Nanotechnology Offers Promise for Medical Diagnosis, Newsletter Reports

Clinical Lab Letter, (Raven Press, published twice-monthly for the medical laboratory market) outlined the prospects for nanoscale machinery's application to laboratory diagnostic procedures in its April 15 issue. The newsletter quotes Richard A. McPherson, M.D., chairman of the division of clinical pathology at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College of Virginia, as saying that nanotechnology "appears quite promising based on computer models, and recently achieved molecular constructs demonstrate how atoms can be arranged into minuscule graphite cylinders, spheres and other mechanical components."

"Potential applications of nanotechnology include injecting programmed nanomachines into the bloodstream to diagnose and treat tumors, heart disease, infected cells or genetic abnormalities...Although nanotechnology may make it possible to identify and treat disease in vivo, future clinical laboratories 'may use this form of miniaturization to screen patient samples for large numbers of genetic disorders, especially those causing heart disease, cancers, and degenerative diseases,' McPherson said."

"Sweat the Small Stuff," LA Weekly Advises

Extensively quoting nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle, the LA Weekly newspaper -- a widely read publication in Los Angeles -- outlined the promise of nanotechnology. "If we can rearrange the atoms in graphite, we can make diamond. If we rearrange the atoms in sand, we can make computer chips. If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and air we can make potatoes," the paper quotes Merkle in its April 5 issue.

Author Judith Lewis quotes Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman proposing that [nanoscale semiconductors] "'could yield machines of untold complexity. They could make judgements,' he said. 'They would have time to calculate what is the best way to make the calculation that they are about to make. In other words, they could be almost human.'"

"Oh, sure, it's scary. Especially when you consider, as Merkle does, that all new forms of technology are applied first to military purposes. If you want a discussion of that, Merkle directs you to read what Admiral David Jeremiah said at the Fourth Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, held in November of last year, at"

Wired: "Nanotechnology much more than vaporware"

"Proving that nanotechnology is much more than vaporware, the US Department of Defense recently awarded the Center for Nanoscale Materials and Processing US$6.65 million for research in this innovative field," writes the ultimate arbiter of trendiness, Wired Magazine in its April 1996 issue. "The center - a multidisciplinary research group composed of teams from such institutions such as the University of Southern California, Cornell and North Carolina State - is developing a device that will ultimately store information at the molecular level."

Computer Shopper Looks to Nanotechnology for Computing Advances

Computer Shopper (Ziff-Davis Publishing, circ. 500,000) took a long and positive look at nanotechnology in its April 1996 issue, detailing for readers the potential of "bottom up" manufacturing of computer circuitry and citing Eric Drexler's work extensively. Writer Stephen W. Plain did a solid job of explaining the concepts of nanotechnology, state of the art, and applications to computer design.

"As strange as it may sound, the first nanocomputers may look more like Charles Babbage's 19th century mechanical computer design than today's solid-state Pentium. That is because extremely small mechanical devices are easier to design reliably than electrical circuits of the same size, at least at this point," the story says. "Drexler has proposed designs for mechanical logic gates that will replace the transistors and other components used in today's processors."

"As wild as the notion of massively parallel miniature systems and self-replicating machines may seem, a well-known precedent for this scenario already exists: the human body," Plain writes. "Proteins are the miniature self-replicating machines that make us what we are. They start as long chains of ordered amino acids -- a relatively limited set of organic molecules -- but then fold up into three-dimensional machines that actually perform operations on other molecules."

"Nanoclusters" Gaining Media Attention for Commercial Applications

"Nanoclusters" -- ultra-small particles ranging in size from a few dozen to a few thousand atoms -- have begun to show up in the popular media in discussion of their emerging commercial potential. While these objects aren't directly on the path to fully realized nanotechnology, they are sparking broader interest in nanoscale materials.

One such story appeared in the April 1 edition of the weekly magazine Insight, (circ. 500,000). Kenneth Silber wrote, "nanoclusters possess different physical and chemical properties than ordinary matter. Ceramic powder composed of nanoclusters, for example, can be molded more readily into engine parts than conventional ceramics. Cluster-based quantum-dot lasers may facilitate high-speed data transmission along fiber optic cables. Crystalline nanocluster films sprayed on the surface of microchips, solar cells and other devices could make electrical conduction cheaper and more efficient."

The article includes a diagram of a "buckyball" carbon molecule (C60), and discusses the possibility of using related fullerene-based filaments to create highly efficient flat-panel displays for computers and other electronic devices.

International Business Lauds Nanotechnology's Economic Potential

International Business (circ. 60,000) is a monthly magazine aimed at senior managers of mid-sized companies. Columnist David Moore wrote in February that "I can report a glimmer of optimism for the generations that will come of age in the first decades of the new millennium. My hope is based on the potential that nanotechnology can bring to the global marketplace." He refers extensively to an earlier Financial Times story based on an interview with Eric Drexler.

U. of Illinois Dendrimer Chemistry Covered by Electronic Engineering Times

Chemist Steven Zimmerman's work on complex dendritic structures was described briefly in the April 8 issue of the weekly Electronic Engineering Times (circ. 136,000). Zimmerman and colleagues have been using the technique of "hydrogen-bond mediated self-assembly," whose application allows assembly of branching molecular structures that grow from chains of hexagonal rings, the magazine reports. The relatively weak hydrogen bond in molecules "makes synthesis easier and allows for more controllable reactions," the story says. It notes that living cells use the same technique to assemble larger molecules from smaller units.

Foresight Update 25 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5 | Page6

From Foresight Update 25, originally published 15 July 1996.