Excerpts from:
House Subcommittee on Basic Science

Nanotechnology: The State of Nano-Science and Its Prospects for the Next Decade


Hearing Date: June 22, 1999

Transcribed by: Tanya Jones

Excerpts from the Opening Statements
Excerpts from the Questions




Excerpts from the Opening Statements

Chairman: "[This hearing is] to discuss nanotechnology, the state of nanoscience, and its prospects for future decades. The Subcommittee met to discuss funding role of the Federal Government in supporting nanoscience research and to discuss the economic implications of the scientific advances made in the field of nanotechnology. In Fiscal Year 1999, the US Government will spend approximately $230 million on nanotechnology research; 80% of the funding comes from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy. The remaining money comes from the National Institute of Health, the Department of Commerce, and NASA. In addition, the private sector has shown interest in the field of nanotechnology, and the question that this Subcommittee and we hope to answer is 'How much effort should the Federal Government be putting into taxpayer-funded research in this area.'

"According to [written] testimony submitted by our panel, scientists have already learned a great deal about how to use nanotechnology. The best example of this is today's biotechnology industry, but according to researchers, that is only the beginning. Nanotechnology holds great promise for great truths in health, agriculture, manufacturing, energy, and national security. In fact, some researchers state that nanotechnology will impact every aspect of our society. Unfortunately, while progress has been made, the United States does not dominate nanotechnology. A significant amount of research is underway in Europe and, especially, Japan.

"In that context, it seems to me that it's appropriate that cooperate and keep abreast of the research being done in these other countries. It's also appropriate the this Subcommittee take a good look at the Federal Government's role in funding nanotechnology research, to discuss what can be done to move this research from the lab to the marketplace, and to discuss where nanotechnology might be 10, 20, 30 years from now."

Wong: "...One nanometer is truly a magical point on the scale of length—at this place, where the smallest man-made things meet the natural atoms and molecules of the living world. Recent discoveries at this scale are promising to revolutionize biology, electronics, materials, and all their applications. We're seeing inventions and discoveries that were unimaginable only a short time ago. For example, we now have materials and electronic devices that assemble themselves—and we see an example of that in a moment—in biological motors, extracted from living systems, and running on their own.

"...Over the last twenty years, a series of instruments were invented that allow us to see, manipulate, and control objects on the nanoscale. They are the eyes, fingers, and tweezers of the nanoscale world. With these remarkable tools, a new world of discovery and invention has been created. This is the world of nanoscale science and technology."


McWhorter: "It's really difficult to imagine any field of science or technology that has had a more profound impact on the last half century than microelectronics. The hallmark of the microelectronics industry has been to each year provide chips that are smaller, faster, cheaper, and better. This has revolutionized all aspects of our lives from our most advanced weapons systems to our toaster ovens. The global microelectrics industry has vectored ahead based on a very simple metric: to make transistors smaller. As transistors become smaller, they become faster; you can pack more of them on a chip; and chips are able to store and process more information. To date, this has been the Silicon Revolution.

"Today we stand on the verge of a second Silicon Revolution. The metrics of the second Silicon Revolution will be different and more important than simply continuing to pack more transistors onto a chip. The metrics of the second Silicon Revolution will be incorporation of new structures, microscopic machines on the chips alongside the transistors, creating a whole new generation of computer chip, a chip that can not only think, but sense, act, and communicate as well. These fully-functional machines have sizes smaller than a human red blood cell. This new capability will have as profound an impact on our lives over the next 30 years as microelectronics have over the past 30 years...."

Smalley: "...Over the past century, we have learned about the workings of biological nanomachines to an incredible level of detail. The benefits of this knowledge are beginning to be felt now in medicine. In the coming decades, we will certainly learn to modify and adapt this machinery to extend both the quality and the length of life....

"Powerful as it is, this bio-side of nanotechnology that works in water and the water-based world of living systems, these things will not be able to do everything. It cannot make things strong like steel or conduct electricity with the speed and efficiency of copper or silicon. For this, other nanotechnologies are being developed, will be developed. It's what I call the 'dry side' of nanotechnology.

"My own research is focused on carbon nanotubes. These nanotubes are an outgrowth of the work that led to the Nobel Prize a few years ago. These nanotubes are absolutely incredible. They are expected to produce fibers that are 100 times stronger than steel, but only one-sixth the weight. [They are] almost certainly the strongest fibers that will ever be made out of anything, strong enough even to build an elevator to space. In addition, they will conduct electricity better than copper and transmit heat better than diamond. Membranes made from the rays of these nanotubes are expected to have revolutionary impact on the technology of rechargeable batteries and fuel cells, perhaps giving us all-electric vehicles within the next 10-20 years with the performance and range of a Corvette at a fraction of the cost....

"The impact of nanotechnology on health, wealth, and lives of people will be at least the equivalent of the combined influences of microelectronics, medical imaging, computer-aided engineering, and man-made polymers developed in this century."

Merkle: "For centuries, manufacturing methods have gotten more precise, less expensive, and more flexible. In the next few decades, we will approach the limits of these trends. The limit of precision is the ability to get every atom where we want it. The limit of low cost is set by the cost of the raw materials and the energy involved in manufacture. The limit of flexibility is the ability to arrange atoms in all the patterns permitted by physical law. Most scientists agree that we will approach these limits but differ on how we should proceed, on what nanotechnology will look like, and on how long it will take to develop. Much of this disagreement is caused by the fact that, collectively, we have only recently agreed that the goal is feasible, and we have not yet sorted out the issues that this creates. This process of creating a greater, shared understanding of both the goals of nanotechnology and the routes for achieving those goals is the most important result of today's research.

"...Nanotechnology will replace our entire manufacturing base with a new, radically more precise, radically less expensive, and radically more flexible way of making products. The aim is not simply to replace today's computer chip-making plants, but also to replace the assembly lines for cars, televisions, telephones, books, surgical tools, missiles, airplanes, tractors, and all the rest. The objective is a pervasive change in manufacturing—a change that will leave virtually no product untouched. Economic progress and military readiness for the 21st century will depend fundamentally on maintaining a competitive position in nanotechnology.

"...Developing nanotechnology will be a major project, just as developing nuclear weapons or lunar rockets were major projects. We must first focus our efforts on developing two things: the tools with which to build the first molecular machines and the blueprints of what we are to build. This will require the cooperative efforts of researchers across a wide range of disciplines: scanning probe microscopy, supramolecular chemistry, protein engineering, self-assembly, robotics, materials science, computational chemistry, self-replicating systems, physics, computer science, and more. This work must focus on fundamentally new approaches and methods. Incremental revolutionary improvements will not be sufficient.

"Government funding is both appropriate and essential for several reasons. The benefits will be pervasive across companies and the economy. Few, if any, companies will have the resources to pursue this alone, and the development will take many years to a few decades—beyond the planning horizon of most private organizations. We know it's possible. We know it's valuable. We should do it."


Excerpts from the Questions

Chairman: "...If there is zero bias among you four gentlemen that are offering this testimony, that the potential for this research, in terms of what it can accomplish for humanity as well as what its potential is for industry and the economy, is every bit as much or more than the silicon revolution.

"...My first question would be, can we justify that kind of effort—number one—and how do you evaluate the US position in terms of this research effort compared to Japan and Europe?

Smalley: "Nanotechnology, of the sort we've talked about today, is different from the major scientific, technological pushes that the country has undergone in the past—since the Second World War and including the Manhattan Project.

"Nanotechnology is intrinsically small science, so it is impossible to dominate the field by a huge program in national laboratories with major facilities, because it's a place where many small laboratories are active—hundreds around the world. It's particularly possible for countries—that are not as well funded as the United States—to be major players in this area. It is the small science initiative that needs to be treated as the big science and technology, big impact area."

Chairman: "What is our weakness, in terms of aggressively pursuing this research—is it the talent of researchers that are capable of exploring this field, or is it simply enough money to pay for enough grants to interest enough researchers?"

Smalley: "I believe at the moment our weakness is the failure so far to identify nanotechnology for what it is: a tremendously promising new future which needs to have a flag. Somebody needs to go out, put a flag in the ground, and say: 'Nanotechnology: This is where we're going to go.' We should have a serious national initiative in this area."

Committee Member from Sonoma County, CA: "I'd like to ask you the kinds of questions [my constituents] might ask. One: Of length of life or quality of life, which—or is it both—is going to be affected by nanotechnology? I also think they'll want to know: does self-replicating mean cloning? If so, what are the ethics? Will the benefits of nanotechnology be used in peaceful application, or are we only looking so we can be bigger and better and competitive with the rest of the world? Is there a way we can all work together globally to improve the challenges we have in lack of food and healthcare?"

Merkle: "Basically, the answer—to the question of will we improve the length or the quality of life—is both. I think that as we see this technology mature, we will have a remarkable set of medical capabilities. Disease and ill health are caused largely by damage at the molecular—at the cellular—level, and today's surgical tools are simply too big to deal with damage at that level. In the future we'll have tools that are molecular, both in their size and their precision; and they'll be able to intervene directly at the level where the damage occurs and correct it. That will have a remarkable impact on healthcare overall and will lead to a revolution in medicine.

"As far as the self-replication, it's very much a non-biological kind of self-replication. To give you an analogy—if you look at cars, cars provide transportation. They are very mechanical in their design style. Horses also provide transportation and are very biological. A horse can survive on sugar lumps, carrots, straw, hay, and the rest. A car requires a refined fuel—a single refined fuel, such as gasoline. It really can't function without gas, oil changes, spark plugs, and roads to run on. A car is an artificial device, a mechanical device.

"In the kind of designs I've thought about for replicating systems, they are very mechanical. They completely lack the adaptability of living systems; they're very much machine-oriented. The thought of them being able to function outside a very carefully controlled environment is similar to a car running wild in the woods.

"As far as the broader implications for the environment, I think that today's manufacturing methods are often too imprecise to economically avoid pollution. Because molecular nanotechnology will be a very precise technology, it won't pollute. As nanotechnology replaces existing manufacturing technologies, pollution from manufacturing plants will largely disappear.

"Nanotechnology will also let us make inexpensive solar cells and batteries, giving us very low cost, clean, solar power. This should virtually eliminate the need for coal, oil, and nuclear fuel."

Smalley: "Let me just pick up on this last point that Dr. Merkle mentioned: the energy problem. Let's suppose that halfway through the next century, we really do have a problem with burning fossil fuels. Right now, I believe there really is only one alternative that could really apply to the energy needs of the entire planet. That alternative is nuclear—nuclear fission in particular, not nuclear fusion.

"I believe that the United States, Europe, and Japan are stable enough societies that they could generate all their power by nuclear fission and provide the necessary stewardship to make the planet safe...

"It would be very nice to have an alternative to fossil fuels—an alternative to nuclear fission—that would be capable of providing energy for what will probably be 10-15 billion people in the middle of this next century. I believe that if this alternative exists, it has to be solar. Right now we do not even have a solar technology that is even laughably close to being able to handle—for example—80% of all the world's energy production. If you don't do 80%, you're not touching the problem. And if you don't provide energy technology that is economically cheaper than the alternatives, it won't be adopted at all.

"Where is that solar technology going to come from? [It will come] not just from improving solar cells, but from something totally new. On a cloudy day in New York, can take most of the photons that hit on cheap collectors and store it in some useful form of energy—like hydrogen or electric charge. When you think about the physics that controls that, you're rapidly led to the conclusion that the physics which makes this possible happen within a little, 1 nm cubic box....

"I don't know what that solar technology is going to be, but I'll bet you that it's nanotechnology."

Chairman: "We have the opportunity to make the decision today, in this country, to invest X number of dollars in nanotechnology. What would that figure be, and where would you direct its focus?"

Merkle: "I think the focus would be directed towards research which would improve our ability to manipulate molecular structure. I would include scanning probe microscopy and self-assembly on the experimental end. On the theoretical end, I would focus very clearly on 'What does a molecular manufacturing system look like?' We've been talking about what will we see in 20 or 30 years or some time in the next century. What will these remarkable advances look like?

"We have computational capabilities today that will allow us to model proposed molecular machines, and we could have very strong theoretical programs aimed at describing what this future will look like. We will have a better understanding of what it is and how best to achieve it."

Chairman: "How would you go about directing and focusing those dollars so that it gets into the hands of people that are on the cutting edge of this technology?"

Wong: "I think that at the National Science Foundation, it's our business to fund the most promising areas of research. I think that we believe in betting on people, supporting the research infrastructure of universities and a high quality peer review process. These are all important parts of the infrastructure that we have built up, that has made basic research such a productive enterprise."

Chairman: "The testimony from all of you seems to imply that the application is in reach in a lot of areas. If that is true, it seems like somehow there ought to be a way to harness the financial contribution of the private sector as well."

McWhorter: "I think the private sector will invest, will even invest a large amount, but the issue of the private sector is risk. The key aspect of what the investment will be is when will they see what the application is, and when will they see the risk being mitigated? I think a program—like the NSF program being described—one of the key roles that it shows the direction and mitigates the risk so that you can free up and realize the private sector investment."

Chairman: "How would we manage a multi-agency, nanoscience initiative?"

Wong: "The NSF has been the coordinator of major inter-agency effort for the last few years. There's a very active group going on right now, chaired by NSF. We're prepared to play that role. We have a long history, and we're absolutely determined and devoted to this as a major strategic direction. Since we are the primary funder of basic sciences, and long lead time projects, I think we are probably positioned to do it."

Chairman: "Do we have the proper effort to observe and keep abreast of what is happening in other countries?"

Smalley: "As an active researcher in the field, one thing we do most of the time is worry about what other people are doing, and so there is a tremendous amount of scrutiny—and for that matter, collaboration—with European and Japanese laboratories. So that aspect I think is well in hand.

Rep. Wilson: "How can we do a better job of being a partner in those other sciences?"

Wong: "I think we've really evolved a system of international competition—yet cooperation at the same time—that is extremely healthy. At the basic science research level, there is open publication, open exchange...."

"There are at least two areas where we should be very careful: one is where national security issues are involved, clearly we must be careful. Second is when intellectual property are involved, when the researching ground has moved sufficiently downstream to have property rights."

Wilson: "Is it possible to be careful enough?"

Smalley: "It's much easier to render the entire process sterile by trying to be too careful than it is to both succeed in developing an area and to make sure that you've kept it all to yourself. If you spend all your time trying to make sure that no one else gets a good idea, you shut down your own intellectual activity.

"In this area of nanotechnology, it's tempting—in fact, even almost impossible to avoid—talking about revolutionary advances which will have huge economic impact and national security implications. It's quite easy to get yourself into the conversation saying, 'If it's that important, let's put it all behind a fence, do it all ourselves, and never talk to anyone about it.' That would be a prescription for sterility."

Larson: "The President's proposed Information Technology Initiative includes the acquisition of a computing system for addressing challenging scientific computing problems. What would be the impact of that level of computational power on nanotechnology research?"

Smalley: "It's vast. The key aspect of nanotechnology is that you're now dealing with the ultimate, fundamental level. You know where all the atoms are. That instantly makes it a fundamental science. So if you know where all the atoms are, you can as how does it behave, and it becomes a calculable problem. Not calculable with the computers of a couple decades ago, but interestingly calculable now with these new incredible computers....

"It's a wonderful aspect of nanotechnology that we haven't even mentioned so far today, that it's simultaneously deep, fundamental, true science—a true ivory tower solution—and yet commercially, in some cases immediately, financially interesting.

"...Pure scientists are dealing with problems and techniques that are pretty far from the commercial realm, with a few exceptions. In nanotechnology, they will get much more together. It will have the effect of revitalizing the American scientific establishment by getting the scientists, at the most fundamental levels, involved in projects of societal and commercial importance."

Chairman: "Gentlemen, on behalf of the Committee, the Congress, the nation: our compliments to you for what you have achieved so far. I think that all of us who have heard your testimony today—and those who will read your testimony in the transcript—are going to be the flag-bearers, because it seems obvious that there is enough information, enough justification, to aggressively pursue additional research in this area. It might not culminate in what we would hope it would, but it seems obvious the justification is there, and it's a worthwhile pursuit. We will aggressively pursue that as we proceed with our new appropriations."