Foresight Update 37

page 4

A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Institute for Molecular Manufacturing Report

The portion of Update 37 that constitutes the IMM Report is on the IMM Web site:

Foresight Update 37 - Table of Contents


Book Review:
Nanotechnology: Towards a Molecular Construction Kit

Edited by Arthur ten Wolde

Published by Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends (STT), 1998 (ISBN 90 80 4496 1 X).

Reviewed by J. Storrs Hall, PhD.

J. Storrs Hall, PhD This book is a nice high-level overview of the current state of nano-research and the beginnings of nanotechnology. It starts with an executive summary, which is also reproduced in a companion pamphlet.

It does give a nod to molecular nanotechnology, the work of Drexler and Merkle, and so forth, much more so than the average "nanotechnology" report (e.g. The "molecular construction kit" of the title is a reference to projected universal assembly capabilities.

On the other hand, the overview starts with a timeline that places the universal assembler at 2050 and the period of "molecular nanotechnology" thereafter. The chart is a bit confusing, with lines running across the graph labeled things like "assembly", "miniaturization", and "chemistry" which are otherwise unexplained. And the Summary ends with the caveat, "Futurologists therefore foresee a revolution of our economic structure and the beginning of the so-called 'diamond age', caused by a drastic reduction in the manufacturing costs of, for example, diamond. However, this vision is not shared by STT."

nanotechnology timeline from book
Nanotechnology timeline from Nanotechnology: Towards a Molecular Construction Kit
executive summary at publisher's web site

That aside, however, the book is, as mentioned, a nice overview of current results and trends. It covers nanoelectronics, nanostructured materials, and nanoscale-resolution microscopy as major topics. Everything else is collected under the heading of "molecular nanotechnology", which features typically 5-page summaries of areas as diverse as self-assembly, dendrimers, organic-molecule transistors, and computational nanotechnology.

This last does include Merkle bearings (picture, p. 242; see text on p. 253) and similar work familiar to anyone who follows the Foresight conferences. If you do, however, it is unlikely to tell you much you didn't already know.

The value of the book as a whole is its wide coverage; it does give a good general picture of the field as it exists today, and is a help in estimating the future track of progress. One can simply ignore the comments regarding future capabilities and economic impact — they are not the point of the book.

I do have to comment on the appearance of a graph last seen in my flying car studies. It's the one showing how speeds in commercial aviation steadily increased through about 1970 and then went flat. It appears on p. 135 and is used as an analogy for the expected "end of miniaturization" in electronics. The aviation graph reveals not so much a limit of technological capabilities (military aircraft operate well beyond the commercial regime) but a strong optimum point for flight regimes from an economic standpoint. If we try to guess where such an optimum exists for general fabrication (of structures and of active devices), it seems we have a strong hint from nature: living things are built with atomically-precise molecular-scale mechanisms comprising self-reproducing systems.

J. Storrs Hall is an IMM Research Fellow

An Executive Summary of Nanotechnology: Towards a Molecular Construction Kit is available at the STT web site at The summary is also available as a downloadable Adobe Acrobat file at

About the Netherlands STT

The Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends (STT), founded in 1968 by the Royal Institution of Engineers in the Netherlands (KIvI), has the following aims:

STT addresses itself to industry, government, science and, of course, the interested layman.

STT realizes its goal by carrying out assessment studies. Representatives from industry, government and academia are invited to join the teams of experts formed around our subjects.

STT focuses on areas of society that are considered of general importance, in which technology plays an important role. Within these area's subjects are chosen where big changes are expected, or that are expected to become 'bottlenecks'. STT evaluates the need for specific studies for long term policy preparation with industry and government.

Foresight Update 37 - Table of Contents


Web Watch.37

by Jim Lewis

Jim LewisThis is the Web site for the nanotechnology database sponsored by the National Science Foundation and hosted at the International Technology Research Institute at Loyola College in Maryland. "This site is designed to present up-to-date sources of information on nanotechnology in the following areas: major research centers, funding agencies, major reports and books." The information for each entry includes a URL and usually also a short description submitted by the listed organization. The section on nanotechnology research and development centers contains separate pages for academic, industry, and national laboratory centers. There is also a page for US government funding agencies, and a page for professional societies and non-profit organizations (both US and foreign are included). Other pages list nanotechnology books, periodicals, and reports. The nanotechnology database is not comprehensive, but it contains many useful pointers and some unique content. For example, the page on nanotechnology reports currently (6/1/99) contains only one entry, the SRC/NASA Ames Workshop on Emerging Opportunities and Issues in Nanotubes and Nanoelectronics, but the report of this workshop is presented on a page at this Web site

The Web site of the Institute of Nanotechnology, "created to foster, develop and promote all aspects of nanotechnology in those domains where dimensions and tolerances in the range 0.1nm to 100 nm play a critcal role. ...The Institute is also active in transferring technologies from the research base to industry and alerting industry to the economic implications of nanotechnology." Portions of the site are open to the public, while other portions are restricted to members, who pay annual fees of from 12 to 35 pounds sterling.

The Web site of the Asian Technology Information Program (ATIP), "a non-profit organization dedicated to providing objective and high-quality information about technology developments in Asia." Although much of the most recent information is restricted to paying members only, a number of older nanotechnology-related reports that are still of interest are available, in whole or in part, to the public. For example:

Non-members have access to summaries of recent restricted material, and can sign up to receive e-mail notices on the release of new reports. A sister site, the European Technology Information Program, is currently under construction at

The new Web site of the Center for Nanotechnology of the University of Washington. "The Center for Nanotechnology was established as part of the University of Washington's Initiative Fund awards for 1997. It brings together faculty and students from Arts & Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, and Pharmacy." Elsewhere, a press release is available that describes a recent research accomplishment of one of the Center's research teams. "Flipping a nano-scale molecular switch may regulate the cell-binding function of a protein involved in healing and other fundamental biological activities. Computer simulations show that, like untying a shoelace, tugging on a strand of the protein fibronectin unravels a loop critical to cell recognition but otherwise leaves the protein intact for reactivation." See:

BioMedNet is an Internet community for biological and medical researchers. Free membership to BioMedNet includes access to HMS Beagle, an excellent Web newsletter for biology and biotechnology, which occasionally features stories on nanotechnology. Some examples:

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From Foresight Update 37, originally published 30 July 1999.