Foresight Update 30

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Media Watch.30

Not-Quite-Nano Breakthroughs

As awareness of the concept of molecular technology spreads through the scientific and lay communities, the word "nanotechnology" becomes ever more fashionable. And, alas, it becomes ever more frequently applied to something other than its original meaning. The trend reached full flower recently with a story in Nature (June 5, 1997)—and considerable related coverage in general media—proclaiming "the first nanomachine," a bioelectronic device developed at the Australian Membrane and Biotechnology Research Institute (AMBRInstitute). See this issue's "Recent Progress" and "WebWatch" columns for more details.

It was a nice piece of work they did Down Under, but a "nanomachine" it isn't. "The device harnesses the self-assembly dynamics of the lipid membrane, and thus provides access to the sensitivity of nanotechnology using only bench level chemistry," its designers said. This is a significant development, but not directly on the path toward programmable molecular assembly.

Associated Press carried another story that further illustrates the confusion now surrounding the term "nanotechnology. In Ithaca, NY, researchers at Cornell University carved a guitar out of crystalline silicon to demonstrate the possibilities of building electromechanical devices at the nanometric level. Coming just before the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, the reports of a "nanoguitar" were well timed, creating the possibility of Nano-Elvis sightings.

"Building dimensions in nanometers requires a new approach using high-voltage electron beam lithography. The teeny-weeny musical instrument, dubbed the nanoguitar, was sculpted out of single crystal silicon," AP reported. "The strings are each about 50 nanometers wide—the width of about 100 atoms. They could be plucked using the tip of an atomic force microscope."

"I know we can go smaller than this," Cornell Applied and Engineering Physics Professor Harold Craighead is quoted as saying. "The question is, how small can we go and still have dependable and measurable mechanical properties. We are nearing the technological limit where it gets harder to get smaller than this."

These examples follow a pattern that Foresight Institute has been anticipating for several years: As the scientific underpinnings of molecular nanotechnology become better understood within the science community, it becomes more professionally acceptable for researchers to position themselves as "nanotechnologists." A first-order consequence will be more widespread confusion about just what constitutes "nanotechnology." Our recommendation: whenever you talk to someone about the subject, take the time to provide your definition of the term, and distinguish "molecular nanotechnology" from the top-down technologies which sometimes march under the same flag.

Foresight also expects increasing attention to the economic and social issues which the realization of molecular nanotechnology is expected to bring. Some of that discussion will embrace Neo-Luddite arguments that nanotechnology research shouldn't be pursued. Expect this to happen, and understand that it is part of the process of preparing for nanotechnology, even if it isn't always comfortable.

Report on Business Magazine, in its June 1997 magazine, extensively featured Xerox Corp. nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle in a story entitled, "Beyond the Microchip." Author Clive Thompson described Merkle's appearance before a conference of microchip manufacturers last fall in which he described the expected end of Moore's law as current microchip manufacturing techniques reach their limits.

"If the microchip engineers want to keep increasing computer performance, they'll need to break out of the box; find totally new ways to create subminiature chips; write software that thinks in radically different ways," Thompson wrote. "Otherwise, Merkle thinks, computers won't get faster, memory won't expand any further and software won't become more powerful. Corporations of the future would be stuck with the technology of the past."

"When Merkle delivered this message, the engineers stood and cheered."

Foresight Executive Director Chris Peterson is also quoted discussing self-assembly using chemical reactions as a means to make smaller chips. "We're talking about designing computer materials the way you design drugs—mixing molecules together using chemical reactions to create devices," she is quoted as saying. "All the major chip makers, such as Intel, Motorola and IBM, have engineers working on this issue," Thompson reports.

The Stewart platform, one of several design concepts being considered as a basis for a molecular-scale general purpose assembler, is gaining popularity in the macro world. Fortune Magazine's May 26 issue writes up "Five Heroes of Manufacturing," including New Hampshire-based Hexel Corp., which is marketing a sophisticated but relatively low-cost programmable machine tool whose design is based on the Stewart platform. Two other big tool makers, Giddings & Lewis and Ingersoll, also are bringing "hexapod" machine tools to market, Fortune reported; two Japanese companies plan to join the fray soon. Inventor Paul Sheldon, who helped design Giddings & Lewis' device, has recently filed patents for a three-axis version of the hexapod that is expected to be simpler and cheaper to build than the six-legged type. Macro-scale Stewart platforms suffer from a "hot foot" ailment, Fortune reported. "Heat from motors causes their struts to stretch a bit when the machines are at work, which can affect the cutting head's accuracy." Manufacturers are compensating mechanically for strut expansion. Ralph Merkle has analyzed the positional uncertainty of the tip of a simple molecular Stewart platform in the face of thermal noise, and concluded that the Stewart platform performs very well in this respect. Drexler discusses the design concept in Nanosystems.

In the world of entertainment, the nanotechnology meme spreads rapidly. Electronic Gaming Monthly reported in April that Activision has been filming action movie mega-star Bruce Willis (Die Hard, etc.) for the lead role in a new interactive computer game called Apocalypse. "Willis plays Trey, a nanotechnologist who recruits you in his battle against a false prophet named the Reverend. Unfortunately, the Reverend is also a wiz at nanotechnology, and he uses his skills to create the Four Horsemen of the Apolcalypse...Plague, Death, War, and the Beast." Will the threat of deliberate misuse/abuse of nanotechnology first reach general public awareness through such paths? We'd prefer to think otherwise, but won't be surprised if it does. After all, science fiction novels conditioned an earlier generation to the ideas of space flight and nuclear energy.

Foresight Update 30 - Table of Contents


Web Watch.30

Those interested in technical progress along the path toward nanotechnology that leads through engineered proteins and designed polymers will find a great deal of research of interest at the Web site of The Scripps Research Institute. Only a few of the relevant research groups are featured here (others can be accessed from the above home page).

The research group of Prof. Charles L. Brooks, III uses theoretical and computational methods to study protein folding and self-assembly. One current project made use of molecular dynamics to describe the thermodynamics of folding of a 48-residue protein fragment "based upon a first principles atomic level description of the protein and solvent environment." Another computational chemistry group with a substantial Web site on the molecular dynamics of protein and DNA molecules is the group of Prof. David A. Case. Highlights of their Web site include a summary of their research, and a gallery of structures of protein and DNA complexes determined in solution using NMR. Various software aids for very specialized aspects of molecular modeling can also be accessed from their welcome page.

The more experimentally focused research of M. Reza Ghadiri, who will be one of the instructors at the Tutorial on Critical Enabling Technologies for Nanotechnology this November, focuses on the design of artificial proteins and catalysts. Of particular interest to nanotechnologists is the beautifully illustrated page on nanotubes produced by the self-assembly of cyclic peptides. The page explains key features of the cyclic peptides that make self-assembly into a designed structure feasible, and how the properties of the nanotube can be changed according to the design of the cyclic peptide. Other research targeted towards the rational design of artificial enzymes includes the use of the binding of metal ions to peptides to control the folding of peptides into a three-helix bundle, and the formation of a self-replicating molecular system in which a helical peptide acts as a structural template to guide the assembly of two constituent fragment peptides into the proper orientation to form the original template peptide structure.

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab's Materials Sciences Division has made available on their Web site brief reports of research pointing toward nanotechnology. Some offerings from their Molecular Design Institute:

Functioning nanomachine described on Web

This past June a team of Australian scientists unveiled a novel and exciting biosensor that has been billed as the world's first functioning nanomachine. It is not a nanomechanical device and not clearly on the road to molecular manufacturing, but rather an electronic device, an application of nanotechnology to a potentially huge biosensor market done by coupling biological molecular machinery and clever chemistry to electronic technology. A synthetic membrane adsorbed to a gold electrode controls the passage of an electric current via ion channels that open or close depending upon whether or not specific receptor molecules have bound their ligands, thus creating a very elegant and sensitive sensor for the ligand molecule. The accomplishment was described in a paper in Nature [see this issue's "Recent Progress" column], and also on several Web sites. A brief description of the device and how it works is available in a CSIRO media release, and in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. A more technical description has been made available by the Cooperative Research Centre for Molecular Engineering and Technology at the University of Sydney. An easy to understand but very detailed and beautifully illustrated Web site on the project has been presented by the Australian Membrane and Biotechnology Research Institute. This site will satisfy both specialists and lay readers.

Foresight Update 30 - Table of Contents


Call for Papers: Nanotechnology & Space

The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS) has announced a special issue on "From Microsystems to Nanotechnology—Applications to Spaceflight". It is planned to cover micromechanics, microengineering, top-down and bottom-up (i.e. molecular) nanotechnologies, and the emerging micro-to-nano integration technologies, with a view to their applications to space science and technology.

The goals of the special issue are (1) putting together micro- and nanotechnologies to foster their integration toward new concepts of nanostructuring and new products, and (2) stimulating the applications of emerging micro-to-nano integrated components, devices, and systems to space applications.

Research and review papers submitted to this project should deal with the design, construction, and operation of micro- and nano-devices and systems, such as nanosensors and microactuators, MEMS, micro/nano integrated devices, molecular manufacturing, molecular electronics, nanocomputers, and nanosatellites.

Papers up to about 14,000 words can be accepted; the preferred size is 5,000-11,000 words. Authors receive 50 free offprints of their paper. Contributions are due by October 31, 1997, and are to be forwarded to: Dr. Salvatore Santoli, International Nanobiological Testbed, via A. Zotti 86, I-00121 Rome, Italy. Tel/fax +39.6.5613439, email For instructions on manuscript preparation, contact JBIS directly at fax +44.171.820.1504.

Foresight Update 30 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 30, originally published 1 September 1997.