A publication of the Foresight Institute
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).
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
"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."
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 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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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
"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."
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 http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/nano4/jeremiahPaper.html."
"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 (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" -- 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 (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.
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.
From Foresight Update 25, originally published 15 July 1996.