Foresight Update 32

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Media Watch 32

by Lew Phelps

The New York Times carried a major story in its February 17, 1998, issue analyzing advances in the world of single wall nanotubes. Science Reporter Malcolm W. Browne's article Entitled " The Next Electronics Breakthrough: Carbon Atoms," predicts that "this elegantly geometrical molecule is about to ignite a revolution in electronics, computers, chemistry and new structural materials."

The article focuses most intensively on the electronic properties of single-wall nanotubes: "Several recent reports show that nanotubes...can perform the same electronic functions as vastly larger silicon-based devices. As a result, a computer based on nanotube devices could be extremely compact, fast and powerful," Browne wrote.

The story extensively reports on the work of Dr. Alex Zettl and his research group at the University of California at Berkeley. They "recently showed that when two slightly dissimilar nanotube molecules are joined together end to end, the "junction" between them functions as an electronic device called a diode. Diodes are the basis of rectifiers, devices that are commonly used to convert alternating current into direct current.

'When we grow nanotubes,' Dr. Zettl said, 'electronic devices naturally form on them..'"

Zettl and his Berkeley colleague, Dr. Phillip G. Collins, presented a paper on this topic at the 1997 Foresight Conference, entitled "Nanoscale Electronic Devices on Carbon Nanotubes."

The Times article continued, "Looking farther into the future, Dr. Zettl suggested that clumps of carbon nanotubes might spontaneously organize their electronic interactions into complex webs analogous to the neural networks of the brain. The density of nanotube interconnections achieved by clumping them together is staggering; if all the nanotube carbon molecules that could be packed into a one-half-inch cube were laid end to end, they would extend 250,000 miles. Dr. Zettl speculated in an interview that a random jumble of nanotubes in such a cube could generate a network of nanocomputers that might be able to perform complex tasks and to reconfigure itself to improve its own efficiency."

Browne's story also reports on the work of Dr. Jie Han and his colleages at NASA Ames Research Center (also presented at the Foresight Conference in a paper entitled "Design and Study of Carbon Nanotube Electronic Devices.") They "recently reported that by inserting defects into the junctions between metal-like nanotubes and semiconductor nanotubes, they had created a variety of junction types within a single nanotube molecule," Browne wrote.

Citing stories in Nature magazine (see the "Recent Progresss" column in this issue for details), the Times also reported on work by two teams, one at Harvard University and the other from Delft University in the Netherlands and Rice University, regarding the changing electrical properties of nanotubes as they are built with different twisting in their structures—if the carbon hexagons along the length of the nanotube line up straight, it's a conductor; if they are twisted, the nanotube acts as a semiconductor (and therefore could be used to create a switch, with computing applications).

According to the Times, bulk-produced nanotubes already are being put to commercial use: "Hyperion Catalysis International Company of Cambridge, Mass., adds small amounts of these molecules to plastic to make the plastic electrically conductive. Conductive plastics are used by the automotive industry to make parts that are coated with electrically charged droplets of paint. This electrostatic painting process saves most of the paint otherwise wasted by conventional spraying and applies a more even coat."

The Times story concludes with a broader look at the potentials of nanotubes, quoting Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, among others.

The author has written previously about molecular-level structural matters, including a major story last July about the synthesis of cubanes (a cube, with a carbon atom at each of its eight corners, an electron bond connecting each pair of adjacent carbon atoms, and a hydrogen atom attached to each carbon).

Angel Technologies aircraft Foresight Senior Associate Marc Arnold, who conceived of the Feynman Grand Prize and contributed substantial funding to it along with Senior Associate Jim von Ehr, was featured in a major story in the Wall Street Journal on December 24, 1997. Staff Reporter Quentin Hardy reported on the efforts by Arnold's Angel Technologies Corp. to develop a high-flying, long endurance aircraft that would fly circular patterns over large cities and serve as a data relay—like a communications satellite, but without the high cost and transmission delays. Arnold's epoxy-hulled aircraft faces lots of competition from other concepts, including an unmanned blimp being developed by a company founded by former White House Chief of Staff Alexander M. Haig Jr. and his son Alex P. Haig.

"Angel's idea 'is interesting, and very cheap,' says Richard Siber, a telecommunications consultant with Andersen Consulting in Boston. 'It now takes $1 million to put up a cellular tower, including hardware, software, zoning and real estate, and Boston has over 300 cell sites. It's not crazy to try something more cost-effective.'"

Angel's plane, called a Proteus, is being built by Scaled Composites Inc., which is run by Burt Rutan, a prominent designer of experimental aircraft, including the Voyager, which in 1986 flew around the world on a single tank of gas, the Journal reported.

More recently, an artists' rendition of the Angel Technologies aircraft served as the cover illustration on the April 1998 issue of Scientific American. The cover illustration represented a series of six stories in the magazine about Wireless Technologies. The project was briefly discussed in one of the articles, "Telecommunications for the 21st Century" by University of Colorado professor Joseph N. Pelton.

Foresight Update 32 - Table of Contents


Web Watch 32

By Jim Lewis

The number of Websites with technical information relevant to nanotechnology has become too large for this column to cover comprehensively. One way to quickly find some of these sites is to explore the home pages of the researchers who presented at the most recent Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology. The list of all the abstracts presented can be found at Many of the abstracts contain links, not only to the full papers, but to the home page of the author, where there is often much related material. To pick just one example, Michael P. Frank gave a talk on "Ultimate Theoretical Models of Nanocomputers." His home page offers links to on-line versions of many of his publications, and to an extensive page on reversible computing Since the heat generated by erasing bits in conventional computer architectures would become a significant limitation to the operation of nanocomputers, anyone interested in nanocomputers would find this web site a substantial resource.

As the pace of research in nanotechnology accelerates, more and more news stories featuring advances in nanotechnology appear on the Web. Unfortunately many of these are only posted for a short time on Web sites run by news organizations, and then they either disappear altogether or into archives only accessible to subscribers. Here are a few items that are still available several months after their original posting: "Bell Labs Says Transistor Is World's Smallest " briefly reports progress in top down fabrication technologies into the range of tens of nanometers feature sizes. This "nanotransistor" is seen as applicable to a practical microchip in the near future, and is "four times smaller, five times faster and draws 60 to 160 times less power than today's transistors." "A Lilliputian car enthralls scientists" reports the miniaturization accomplishments of workers in Australia in fabricating a 5-mm long car that travels at 0.36 kmh.

Although these two accomplishments have nothing to do with molecular nanotechnology, they are not necessarily irrelevant to Foresight's interests. As explained by John McPherson, who forwarded the above two items:

"The good thing about these nano-electronic advances is that it improves our ability to do computational nanotechnology. The really interesting thing about the Bell labs nano-chip is that it is reportedly ten years ahead of the industry curve. This is a good example of an advancement that can be made when no one expects it, kind of like the sheep cloning advancement that shocked everyone. This advancement, however, is small compared to a potential major molecular nanotechnology advancement. This highlights the importance of the Foresight Institute and the need to prepare for sudden technological advancements." In recognition of the growing importance of nanotechnology, IBM, long a leader in nanotechnology research, has collected on one page links to the company's achievements in nanotechnology research. The five pages at this site emphasize the many contributions of IBM scientists to scanning probe microscopy, and contain links to more information at other IBM Websites and elsewhere.

The Institute of Physics Publishing PhysicsWeb featured an article on carbon-based electronics, by Drs. Deepak Srivastava of the NASA Ames Research Center and Madhu Menon of the University of Kentucky, as the news of the week article for December 5, 1997

The Carnegie Mellon University Video Library contains a video of a lecture on "Nanocomputers and Molecular Engineering" given by Dr. K. Eric Drexler in 1990 The VXtreme plugin is necessary to view the lecture. It can be downloaded from, but unfortunately the current version does not appear to be compatible with the most recent versions of Netscape Communicator or of Microsoft Internet Explorer.

The Electronic Engineering Times Website now runs a regular column on nanotechnology, written by Bill Spence. An archive of past columns is available. is the Web page of a new company announcing "a new type of digital mass storage device, of which components also have application in ultra-high resolution lithography and device fabrication, based on arrays of atomic probes."

Nanotechnology has been a popular topic among debaters (see, for example, the article "Debating Nanotechnology" in Update 9). Now resources geared to the needs of those debating nanotechnology, including advice on specific debating strategies, are available on the web, although occasionally with some minor confusion on technical issues., maintained by David M. Berube of the University of South Carolina. In addition to articles and course material on debate and argumentation, and on popular culture, there are articles on "Nanotechnological Prolongevity: The Down Side," and "Nanosocialism". Those wishing to debate some of Berube's conclusions might wish to visit these articles using to enter their own annotations., maintained by Brian Wassom, contains an extensive list of links to nanotechnology pages that might have information of use to debaters., a feature of the Hitchhiker's WebQuarters for CX debaters, compiled by Paradigm Research, presents debating strategies and references. "Nanotechnology: Progress and Prospects" by David Howie of Oxford Nanotechnology PLC offers a comprehensive review of nanotechnology, complete with a very useful glossary of technical terms. This review focuses on technical progress, covers molecular nanotechnology, also known as molecular manufacturing, but emphasizes the broader area of nanoscale science and technology that is often included under the term nanotechnology. The first chapter provides a history of the term, explains the different definitions in use, discusses the motivations driving work at the nanometer scale, summarizes top down and bottom up approaches to manufacturing, speculates on time scales for implementation of different types of nanotechnology, and gives an overview of organizational support and funding for nanotechnology research. Similar surveys of active organizations and funding are included in the subsequent chapters.

The second chapter, on molecular nanotechnology, presents the history of the concepts and some of the controversies that have surrounded it, and then gives a solid description of some current work in computational nanotechnology and in the theory of nanomachines. Included in this chapter are concise and informative reviews of quantum electronics, quantum computation, and instrumentation for nanoscale measurements and manipulation. The third chapter summarizes nanoscale research related to nanotechnology: friction at the atomic scale, nanocrystals, thin films, fullerenes, microsystems and MEMS, molecular electronics, supramolecular chemistry, and molecular biology. Coverage for each of these topics is necessarily limited in depth, but the wide overview of which fields are relevant is quite valuable. The fourth chapter tackles nanolithography in considerable detail (apparently the area of Howie's principal technical expertise).

These chapters are erudite and technical, but very well written and accessible to anyone with a general technical background. There are few technical errors. Each chapter is well-referenced, but primarily to the print literature, with few web links. An annoying minor detail is that some numbers that appear to be exponents are not formatted as exponents.

This scholarly and well-researched study will be useful to anyone interested in prospects for developing nanotechnology in the next decade or two. It is interesting that although Howie tries to give a balanced assessment, he is skeptical that a mature molecular nanotechnology is feasible. Why he is skeptical, however, is not entirely clear. He cites, and then refutes, various complaints that others have made about the feasibility of molecular manufacturing. For example: "At the very least, all claims that his [Drexler's] structures in some way violate physical laws have been plausibly defused." Howie notes that the technical obstacles to be overcome before molecular manufacturing is practical are formidable, but then states: "Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that throughout history the speed of scientific progress has routinely confounded the most expert of commentators." Also: "The idea of molecular manufacturing is often ridiculed. Yet molecular machines of a greater sophistication than those dreamt of by molecular nanotechnologists already exist [in biological systems]."

The prinicipal reason for his negative view of molecular manufacturing seems to be that some of the consequences that have been predicted are prima facie "outlandish": "The credibility of molecular manufacturing is low because many commentators do not restrict themselves to theoretical issues." He then speaks condescendingly of "rather endearingly American neuroses", such as "personal empowerment and self-expression", "life-extension through cryogenic preservation of the body", "extreme individualism", space travel, and "terraforming and colonization of other planets".

He does raise the legitimate and cogent argument that how nanotechnology is implemented and controlled, and thus its availability, has the potential to exacerbate already serious social divisions. "These comments are intended not as criticisms, but as reminders that technological speculation is a contingent activity that is always performed in some specific cultural context. It does seem likely, though, that if nanotechnology products do become commonplace, their technical complexity, and the decreasing control users will have in the event of malfunctions, will foster increased feeling of alienation and impotence among powerless or disenfranchised social groups."

These points confirm that from the standpoint of Foresight's mission of "Preparing for nanotechnology", establishing technical credibility is only half the battle. There are severe cultural barriers (fears?) to thinking seriously about implications of nanotechnology that stretch widespread and millenia-old assumptions about human existence. In particular, how the question of access to the technology is handled has the potential to facilitate acceptance or to alienate very large factions of the population.

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From Foresight Update 32, originally published 15 March 1998.