Foresight Update 44

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 44 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


UCLA Teams Continues Advance Toward Molecular Computing

According to a report from United Press International on 26 January, two prominent molecular electronics researchers at UCLA have succeeded in developing a reconfigurable molecular switch that works in a solid state at room temperature. The advance is seen as an important step in the development of molecular computers.

The researchers were James Heath, professor of chemistry at UCLA and scientific co-director of the California NanoSystems Institute; and J. Fraser Stoddart, who is Saul Winstein Professor of Organic Chemistry at UCLA. Heath was part of a team awarded the 2000 Feynman Prize for experimental work last November, for related work in the development of molecular switches. (see article in Update 43)

"This is the second experimental step, and the steps are no longer a slow walk, but a fast jog," said Heath. "We feel that we truly have a line-of-sight toward manufacturing an extremely powerful and efficient molecular based computing machine," he told UPI.

Stoddart agreed that progress in this field has surpassed all expectations. "When I joined UCLA's faculty three years ago, if someone had asked me how far off molecular computing was, I would have said on a scale of a quarter of a century," he said. "I have never ceased to be amazed at the progress we have been making and the astonishing rate at which it has all been happening. What was only a dream yesterday turns into a reality today — and tomorrow would seem to promise even greater rewards."

Heath and Stoddart had previously demonstrated that they could turn their molecular switches on and off repeatedly (see article in Update 42). Now, says Heath, they have been able demonstrate that they may be repeatedly switched on and off over reasonably long periods of time in a solid state device under normal laboratory conditions.

The UCLA team's success is based in part on more than a decade of research by Stoddart and his coworkers into the chemistry of catenanes. These molecules consist of two mechanically interlocked rings of atoms, and can be modified in a wide variety of ways. "The power of Fraser's chemistry is that it's like a tinker toy set," said Heath, "and various desirable physical and chemical properties can be generated by piecing together the appropriate molecular components. As we rearrange the tinker toys, we find that we can modify and improve the properties of these devices. This opens up a lot of possibilities for new devices and technologies."

They are also investigating ways to connect individual molecular electronics components into larger arrays. "We have got to get the wires as well as the switches down to a molecular level," Stoddart said. "Carbon nanotubes . . . are an attractive way of addressing this challenge. We are working on the functionalization of carbon nanotubes currently in my research group."

"While our current molecular devices are only one molecule thick, the wires are still a couple of thousand molecules wide," Heath said. "We are currently working on coupling our molecular switches with wires that are only about two to 10 molecules wide. Once we make true molecular-scale circuitry — many devices all coupled together — we are going to have to connect it to the outside world."

The UCLA scientists are collaborating with Hewlett Packard researchers to develop a molecular computer that learns and improves with use. In addition to HP, the field of molecular electronics is now getting serious attention from such industry giants as Motorola and IBM, according to the UPI report. "We're trying to learn to make a computer from the bottom up," Heath said.

The researchers feel they are closer to the intermediate goal of developing molecular random access memory (RAM). "We have achieved a critical step on the way to molecular RAM at room temperature — which is required if this is to be a viable technology," Heath said. "From here, molecular RAM may well be just a matter of time. While there are many pitfalls between the demonstration of a technology and the actual invention, at the moment, we can't see how any of those pitfalls could prove fatal."

"We hope to have a laboratory demonstration of a molecular-scale computing machine within about five years, " Heath said. "Engineering that into a real product with a real increase in computational power over what is available with silicon technology will take several more years."

"A growing band of scientists and engineers from different disciplines believes that the time has come to do science in an orchestrated way at the nanoscale level," Stoddart said. "Nothing is going to stop the march of nanoscience now."

Foresight Update 44 - Table of Contents


World Watch: Nanotech News from East Asia

An article in Nature ("Japan sets sights on success in nanotechnology," by D. Cyranoski, 30 November 2000) reports that, partly in response to the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), "Japan is also gearing up for expansion in the field. Extra money has been earmarked for a host of new interdisciplinary programmes, centres and institutes for nanoscience." Overall, the Japanese government has plans to spend 50 billion yen (about $US 431 million) for nanotechnology-related activities for fiscal year 2001.

According to the report, a major challenge facing Japanese efforts is organizing and coordinating a "chaotic" variety of ongoing and proposed new programs and institutions for managing them.

This includes a reorganization of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST, formerly the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology). AIST programs will foster multidisciplinary research in nanoscience and nanotechnology at six research centers and four institutes throughout the country.

One of these will the newly-formed National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), which will focus nanotech-related research on materials for potential use in nanoscale devices. Likely areas include quantum dot devices, single-electron transistors, and computers that employ quantum dots or wires. NIMS is projected to have an annual budget of about 2.4 billion yen (about $US 22 million) and a staff of about 100. A separate, and much larger, nanomaterials research program will be organized under the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) with an annual budget of 5 billion yen (about $US 45.8 million) and a permanent staff between 150-200 people; this is expected to be supplemented by 100-200 postdoctoral researchers and temporary employees.

The need for Japan to effectively coordinate its nanotechnology research and development efforts was forcefully made in an editorial piece in the Tokyo Nikkei Weekly ("Nation needs broad policy on research," by M. Nakamura, 27 November 2000). "Japan's science and technology policy suffers from serious weakness," Nakamura writes. "In fields that are broad in scope and contain numerous branches of study, it fails to promote projects that bring together all the research being done . . . What is needed is a national strategy, and the lack of one is showing up again in the field of nanotechnology," he says.

Nakamura points out that Japanese government and industry employ many top researchers in a number of individual areas of nanotechnology-related research. But it is not well coordinated, he maintains, and he points to the U.S. NNI as a better model. "Despite the reforms of past years," he laments, "Japan's science and technology policy is still implemented through the separate and parallel channels of the various government ministries and agencies, as it has always been. And more than anything else, the policy lacks a clear set of objectives."

Nakamura concludes, "It is time for Japan to think seriously about which fields to support and how to bring them together. If it does not, the nation risks losing the technological lead it enjoys in some fields." Whether the Japanese can successfully manage and integrate its myriad nanotechnology development programs is likely to be a key factor for Japan to remain at the forefront of the field.


An article on China Online ("Chinese Science Academy to build Nanotechnology Research Center in Beijing," 6 November 2000) reports on an October 2000 announcement by the Chinese Science Academy that the country's largest research-and-development center for nanotechnology will be built in Beijing. According to the report, CSA has allocated 25 million renminbi (about US$3.02 million) to the Nanotechnology Research Center project. The new center will encourage interactions among scientists and technicians from different areas and organizations, and facilitate the exchange of information, software, equipment and instruments of nanotechnology throughout the scientific community. Major research assignments by the state and the academy will also be preformed at the Nanotechnology Research Center.

Another report in the English version of People's Daily (13 July 2001) reports China recently set up its first nanometer technology industrial base in the Tianjin Economic and Development Area. The report, which is rather vague, states "The Tianjin nanometer technology base has set its short and middle-term development on semiconductor, biopreparate, explosives, ecologically friendly diesel oil, paint and catalyzing materials. Its long-term focus is to develop and produce nanometer parts and nanometer machinery."

The base will operate as a joint effort of the State Administration of Petroleum and Chemical Industries, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Qinghua University and Beijing University of Science and Engineering, officials said. The effort will use personnel and existing labs in the universities, research institutions and enterprises to accelerate nanometer technology industrial development in the country.

Korea and Elsewhere

In South Korea, the Ministry of Science and Technology unveiled a major initiative to boost scientific research and development this year, focusing on biotechnology and ultra-small material science, according to a report in the Korea Herald ("Ministry announces a major initiative to boost bioscience, nanotechnology," by Hwang Jang-jin, 12 February 2001). The initiative places top priority to promoting Korea's competitiveness in bioengineering and nanotechnology. The ministry will allocate 23 billion won this year into research and development of nanotechnology, identified as one of the three most promising fields of future science along with biotechnology and information technology. "Nanotechnology will revolutionize chip, computer, medical and electronics technologies. We aim to put Korea in the front of the trends," Minister Seo Jung-uck said. A comprehensive development plan will be drawn up by July, to be presented to the presidential science council, he said.

An article in the Far East Economic Review ("Nanotechnology Designer Molecules: It's Time to Think Small," by C. Bickers, 18 January 2001), provides a brief overview of the increasing activity in nanotechnology-related activities by industrial companies in Asia, notably Japan's Hitachi, NEC, Fujitsu and Mitsubishi and South Korea's Samsung.

Companies such as Samsung Electronics of South Korea, a leading maker of memory chips, are conducting extensive nanotech research at company labs. Fujitsu, another leading semiconductor company, recently announced it would open a nanotechnology research center in Kawasaki, near Tokyo. Both company says research priorities include advances in computer memory and processing.

The article also highlights strong interest in fullerene and nanotube research in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. While the article focuses primarily on short-term goals for the use of nano-engineered materials in electronics and biotechnology, it also discusses the increasing level of interest in more advanced nanotechnology as well.

Foresight Update 44 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 44, originally published 1 April 2001.