Foresight Update 44

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Nanotech Frontier Challenges Engineers

Gathering interest for a new "industrial revolution"

With the rapidly expanding acceptance of the basic premise of molecular nanotechnology, supported by an increasingly rich body of research to demonstrate its validity, attention is beginning to focus more sharply on the challenges of developing nanosystems for real-world applications. This trend is readily apparent in the growing attention from various engineering disciplines. A prime example is a meeting sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), "Beyond Microdevice Engineering: Nanotechnology," held in Washington, D.C. in December 2000.

According to a report in the January issue of the ASME News, "Interest in the world of nanotechnology is so great that the location of ASME's first meeting on the subject . . . had to be moved to accommodate the larger-than-expected crowd." More than 150 people, representing a mix of government, industry and academia, attended the meeting.

The presentations covered a wide range of nanoscale science and technology research, as well as policy issues and socio-economic implications. A number of speakers specifically considered the role mechanical engineering will play within the multidisciplinary, multi-faceted field, including professional communities such as ASME. In his remarks opening the meeting, ASME President John R. Parker said that the workshop is likely "to be a springboard to many more ASME events." And Albert P. Pisano, chair of the steering committee that organized the conference, said the purpose of the event was to explore ways to foster nanoscale research "under the auspices of this engineering organization." ASME has approximately 125,000 members.

Pisano, a mechanical systems professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is an authority on microelectromechanical systems and headed the MEMS program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency between 1997 and 1999.

At one point during the proceedings, after hearing several speakers, Pisano remarked, "We're rewriting the curriculum for mechanical engineering." The high level of interest in the potential of nanotechnology as an emerging challenge for the engineering community was also highlighted in a luncheon address by Mihail Roco from the National Science Foundation (NSF), who was another of the conference organizers. Roco, a ASME Fellow, is senior advisor for nanotechnology at the NSF's Directorate for Engineering, and one of the federal government's leading experts in the field of nanotechnology. He was a key figure in the formulation of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI.

Roco's remarks appeared as the lead article in the January 2001 issue of the ASME journal Mechanical Engineering, ("A Frontier for Engineering"). In his comments, Roco said: "This technology will spawn a new kind of industrial revolution in the coming decades. Nanotechnology holds the promise of scientific breakthroughs in a wide range of fields, has an immense potential for industry and the overall economy, for better health care, and for a sustainable environment."

Roco went on to suggest that focused education and training, and collaborative research and development programs offer a pathway for mechanical engineering to enter into the developing nanotechnology "industrial revolution." Specifically, education and training could give engineers a better understanding of phenomena and processes from the atomic, molecular, and macromolecular levels, and nanotechnology included in established mechanical engineering courses, of overview courses at all levels, and of continuing education and retraining programs. Roco also encouraged interdisciplinary R&D through interdepartmental collaboration, to foster close collaboration between mechanical chemical, electrical, and biological engineers, as well as physicists, chemists, and biologists.

After discussing the origins and current form of the NNI, and its intended role in fostering a broad range of nanoscale research and development efforts, Roco concludes his article:

"Nanoscale science, engineering, and technology are seen as emerging, strategic areas for the next decades that will be at the backbone of the next industrial revolution . . . We are just at the beginning of the development curve . . . New architectures, devices by design, and economical replication methods at nanoscale are challenges for the future. Imagination and creativity are needed.
"By redefining the role of engineering toward analysis, design, and control in manufacturing at the nanoscale, one may expect broad implications. They include enhanced productivity, new products beyond the existing technology, and increased synergism with other emerging technologies. Science, technology, and economic factors are expected to bring nanotechnology to a central role in our lives in just a decade or two."

In an accompanying editorial commentary, ("Changing the Way We Live"), ME Editor-in-Chief John G. Falcioni noted that U.S. federal spending on nanotechnology will total $422 million in FY2001, and that private funding "rivals that of the Feds." He then asks:

"So what are we to assume about this not-yet-trendy technology that is receiving so much interest from a relatively small but influential list of top engineers and scientists, and some of the world's largest companies? The answer is simple — yet the impact promises to be immense: Nanotechnology will change the way we live."
"Whatever publicity the general press has given to nanotechnology has focused on the research of scientists and physicists. But [the December 2000 meeting] of top nanotechnology experts . . . reminds us that the work of nanotechnology development is interdisciplinary. No single vocation or profession can claim ownership. While it is true, for example, that intended nanosystems are to mimic the building processes found in nature, it is the engineer who will manufacture the systems."

Commenting at the end of Roco's article, Falcioni concludes:

"This is a technology that promises to change the way we live, the way we combat disease, the way we manufacture products, and even the way we explore the universe. Simply put, nanoscale manufacturing allows us to work with the building blocks of matter, at the atomic and molecular levels. This enables the creation of systems that are so small that we could only dream about their application years ago."

Falcioni also noted that Roco's article is the first in a year-long series that will "invite leaders in the field of nano-technology to explore scientific and engineering issues influencing research, testing, development, manufacturing, and commercialization."

This focused, high-level interest in nanotechnology within the ASME was also highlighted by an earlier feature article in the November 2000 issue of in Mechanical Engineering co-authored by NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, Associate Administrator Samuel L. Venneri, and Ahmed K. Noor, Director of the Center for Advanced Computational Technology at the Langley Research Center ("The Great Out of the Small").

The article echoed many of Roco's themes, and highlighted NASA's view of the potential uses of nanotechnology, as well as biotechnology, robotics and information technology, in an extremely visible way. "The synergistic coupling of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology," they write, "with other leading edge aerospace technologies can produce breakthroughs in vehicle concepts and exploration missions, enable new science, and reshape our frame of reference for the future. The potential benefits of these technologies are pervasive and extend to several nonaerospace fields, such as high-performance computing and communications, land and sea transportation systems, health care, and advanced energy conversion and storage." The fact that such highly placed figures are making such a presentation to the engineering community is significant. The article was also introduced with a special editorial by Falcioni.

Other recent indications of the growing interest from a variety of engineering communities include:

Last October, Chemical and Engineering News devoted an entire special issue to nanotechnology (C&EN, 16 October 2000). The articles in the issue covered research, instrumentation, business and government involvement.

Similarly, the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE) has identified nanotechnology as a high-interest area, according to an item in Chemical Engineering Progress ("AIChE Takes Initiative with Nanotechnology," January 2001). The organization plans to add nanotechnology programming to its meeting and conference topics.

A lengthy introduction to nanotechnology appeared in the 21 September 2000 issue of Machine Design ("The Future Will Be Measured in Nanometers," by L. Teschler, 21 September 2000). Although the article assumes that functional nanosystems are still relatively far-off, it presents a very thorough overview of the basic concepts of molecular nanotechnology as an emerging engineering discipline, and represents another example of nanotechnology being brought to the attention of engineers and designers, rather than pure science researchers.

Finally, we have the example of a forward-looking address ("Dream to Make Something Happen") delivered by David O. Swain, Senior VP of Engineering & Technology for The Boeing Company, and also president of Phantom Works, the research and development organization of the company. The talk was delivered last October at the ASM International Materials Solutions Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

"Nanoscale science and engineering most likely will produce the strategic technology breakthroughs of tomorrow," Swain said. "Our ability to work at the molecular level, atom by atom, to create something new, something we could manufacture from the "bottom up,' opens up huge vistas . . . There are huge possibilities." Swain concluded his address with a "call for action." He said: I believe in what poet Carl Sandburg wrote: "Nothing happens unless you first dream.' We need to dream again. Dream about new formulas, new metals, new materials. Dream about nanoscience, nanoengineering, nanotechnology. Dream about the possibilities, the opportunities, and then make our dreams come true. Then, and only then, can we unlock exciting frontiers with our discoveries."

ASM is a society for professionals concerned with industry, technology and applications of metals and materials, and has over 40,000 members who are engineers, managers, scientists, researchers, teachers, students, marketers, equipment manufacturers and suppliers. The Institute for Molecular Manufacturing co-sponsored a special session dedicated to molecular nanotechnology at the same conference (see Update 41). Swain's address and the IMM-sponsored session helped provide an overview of molecular nanotechnology to a part of the materials community that has been largely insulated from progress in this area.

These are just a few examples of the accelerating trend toward the acceptance of nanotechnology as a challenge for engineering in the development of applications, and not just an arena of basic research.

Foresight Update 44 - Table of Contents


Nanomedicine Featured in The Lancet Medical Journal

The potential applications of advanced molecular nanotechnology to medicine have been receiving an increasing level of attention. A brief overview of the emerging field of nanomedicine was featured in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet ("Macrodoctor, come meet the nanodoctors," by K.Morris, 10 March 2001).

The article begins with the vision of advanced medical nanotechnology presented by Robert A. Freitas Jr. in his ground-breaking Nanomedicine, bringing "billions of minute, self-assembling, computerised, bioelectro-mechanical systems — "nanobots' — to the injury site, sensing, diagnosing, then activating therapeutic systems and even cellular repair."

The Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, where Freitas was a Research Fellow at the time, provided major funding in support of Freitas' research and writing the first volume of his examination of the medical applications of molecular nanotechnology, which was published, after five years of work, in October 1999. Freitas continues work on the projected second and third volumes as a Research Scientist at Zyvex Corporation.

The Lancet article presents examples of current research that is laying the foundations for the development of actual medical nanosystems. The article also addresses safety concerns, and makes note of the Foresight Guidelines for safe research and development of nanotechnology. As the article concludes, "the beauty of nanomedicine is that systems will be specifically designed then self-built, molecule by molecule, for any function, at any level down to the atom. Perhaps this is why the forward-thinking chair of Foresight, Eric Drexler, predicts that nanomedicine will dominate medical technology research for at least half this century."

This short but positive piece helps bring the potential of nanomedicine directly to the attention of the medical community itself.

In another important first, a lengthy piece by Freitas on "Nanodentistry" was featured as the cover article in the November 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association, complete with nanodental cover art. This appears to mark the first nanotechnology cover story in a major peer-reviewed U.S. medical journal.

A number of important reviews of the first volume of Freitas' Nanomedicine have been published in recent months:

A very positive review by Gregory M. Fahy, Ph.D., a medical researcher specializing in cryonic tissue preservation, appeared in the October 2000 issue of Life Extension Magazine ("A Gift From The Future"). Fahy writes, "Nanomedicine is an endlessly impressive and uniquely important book. Like Newton's Principia and Drexler's Nanosystems, it stands as a marker between all that has come before, and all that will come in the future . . . Nanomedicine is relevant to nearly everyone alive today and now, in many ways. It may save many lives, and it will certainly elevate many more. It is, in a sense, a gift from the future to those of us living in the present."

A second review by Lawrence Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., who is the Director of the Division of Surgical Research at McGill University in Montreal and the head of their Tissue Engineering Initiative, appears in the first issue of the journal New Surgery ("A Review of Nanomedicine," Spring 2001). "The coming ability to carry out targeted medical procedures at the molecular level will bring unprecedented power to the practice of medicine," Rosenberg asserts, "and promises to dominate medical technology research in the coming decade . . . Nanomedicine is the first book-length technical discussion of the potential medical applications of molecular nanotechnology and medical nanorobotics. It is meant to help us to frame the research issues that must be addressed, and to develop a knowledge base with which to proceed on the path toward medical nanotechnology."

And he concludes, "Given the current pace of development in nanotechnologies generally, the future of medicine really does appear to be nothing short of awesome. Seen in this context, Nanomedicine by Robert Freitas is a must read. It is the authoritative roadmap to the future of medicine."

Foresight Update 44 - Table of Contents


EPA to Fund Nanotech-Oriented Environmental Research

The National Center for Environmental Research, part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has issued a Request for Applications (RFA) for "Exploratory Research to Anticipate Future Environmental Issues" as part of its FY 2001 Science To Achieve Results (STAR) Program. A portion of the program will fund Exploratory Research on the Application of Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology to Environmental Problems. Responses to the RFA are due by 18 June 2001.

Environmental preservation and remediation are applications of nanotechnology that were foreseen over a decade ago by Eric Drexler ("Healing and Protecting the Earth," in Chapter 8 of Engines of Creation, 1986) and by Drexler, Peterson and Pergamit in Unbounding the Future (Chapter 9, "Restoring the Environment") in 1991. It remains an important issue for Foresight.

Under the STAR program, approximately $5 million is expected to be available in FY2001 for new research grants ranging between $100,000 to $150,000 per year for up to 3 years for the nanoscale portion of the program.

With this RFA, the EPA joins a number of other federal agencies that have initiated specific research and development programs to implement the broad goals of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Funding for NNI in FY2001 was approved by Congress last year (see Update 43).

One of the aims of the STAR program is to promote research that will help provide "a sound scientific foundation for environmental protection, one that addresses current problems and anticipates future problems." The program funds research that addresses gaps in today's science and engineering knowledge. A second approach is to allow open, investigator-initiated projects which apply new, novel, and highly innovative approaches to address environmental issues or the scientific or engineering principles that underlie them.

According to the RFA, research is needed to demonstrate the utility and value of nanoscale science and technology in environmental science. Any revolutionary science and engineering approach to the existing infrastructure of consumer goods, manufacturing methods, and materials usage is sure to have major consequences on the environment. What these consequences are and whether they are good or bad for the environment needs to be anticipated in nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Research that involves novel approaches and that adapts newly developed experimental, theoretical, and computational methods for characterizing nanostructures is needed. Projects might fit into one or more of the following categories:

In addition to the discussion of the research proposed in nanoscience and nanotechnology, responses to the RFA will be assessed on the basis of their importance to environmental protection. Each application must include a section which addresses how the proposed research will affect the environment.

A detailed description of the program, the RFA, eligibility, and application procedures can be found on the EPA web site.

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From Foresight Update 44, originally published 1 April 2001.