Q & A with the Experts


Nanotechnology and the Battle to Build Smaller
by Noah Robischon


The smallest guitar on earth is 10 microns long, about as big as a human white blood cell -- the perfect size for a bacterial rock star. Each of its six silicon strings is an amazing 100 atoms wide. Of course the "nanoguitar" isn't meant to be played; you can't even see it without an electron microscope. It was made by researchers at the Cornell University Nanofabrication Facility to illustrate just how tiny mechanical devices can get. Nanotechnology is the science of the small. Derived from the Greek word for dwarf, nano is a one-billionth unit of measurement. So a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and a virus is nearly 100 nanometers across. Nanotechnology is the term used to descr ibe a wide array of theoretical and experimental approaches to engineering tiny machines; everything from making smaller microchips (Intel's Pentium processor already has parts measuring just 350 nanometers), to envisioning molecular robots that could swi m through our bloodstream and fight disease.

People working in the field of nanotechnology today are divided between two disciplines: those working from the "bottom up," mostly chemists attempting to create structure by connecting molecules; and those working from the "top down," engineers taking ex isting devices, such as transistors, and making them smaller.

Top-down or mechanical nanotechnology will have the greatest impact on our everyday lives in the near future. Cornell is one of five nanofabrication facilities in the country funded by the National Science Foundation. Researchers from IBM, AT&T and Raythe on, among others, utilize the $20 million worth of equipment housed there as an incubator for projects such as the disposable medical laboratory on a chip. This invention would allow a medical technician to place a drop of blood on a $5 chip, measuring th e width of a dime, and connect it to a computer that would immediately process a diagnosis. Such a device is "no more than five years away," says Dr. Lynne Rathbun, the program manager at Cornell.

Perhaps less immediately useful, but equally important is the work being done by bottom-up scientists such as Nadrian Seeman, a structural chemist at New York University. Inspired in 1980 by an M.C. Escher drawing, Seeman used DNA to create a cube just se ven nanometers across. Now he's making more complex and stronger structures, such as truncated octahedrons that could be used to make new materials. He's even built a chemical switch that could potentially be used in a nanosized electronic device such as a bio-computer chip.

Seeman's work is influenced by biology more than engineering. "Biology is nanotechnology that works already," Seeman says. Photosynthesis is, after all, a molecular-scale mechanical operation and enzymes are essentially nanosize factories. The challenge f or nanotechnologists is learning to control such processes. Once they do, huge advances in everything from microelectronics to chemical engineering will be possible.

Take a journey with us into this tiny world, where we'll explore the people who are working to make nanotechology a reality, the tools they're u sing to create tiny machines and where these advancements might take us in the future. If you have questions, we've asked a few experts to come o nline to answer some of them.

The Pioneers:


The science of building small was first introduced in 1959 by Richard P. Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, in a lecture titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." At that time most scientists were thinking big about interplanetary space travel, but Feynman awakened them to possibilities of controlling single molecules or even atoms and creating machines with them. Nearly 40 years later, physicists, chemists, molecular biologists and computer scientists around the world are working in nanotechnology.


In 1996, Richard E. Smalley received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering "Buckminster Fullerenes." Named after the architect who invented the geodesic dome, these soccer ball-shaped pure carbon molecules, dubbed "buckyballs," and their cylindrical cousins "nanotubes" are likely to be the strongest substance in existence. Nanotubes are created by vaporizing carbon with a laser and then letting it reassamble in an inert gas such as helium. Aside from creating super-strong polymers that could replace the graphite used in everything from tennis racquets to airplanes, nanotubes could be used as circuits in the nanoelectronic devices of the future. In his lecture "Nanotechnology and the Next 50 Years," Smalley forecasts that, with the right advances in technology, a nanometer-sized solar cell could be built. Such devices could potentially provide for the world's energy needs in the year 2050.


IBM's nanoscience project has been making steady advances in the field since 1990, when Don Eigler used a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to write his employer's initials with 35 xenon atoms. In 1996, the research team, led by James K. Gimzewski, built the world's smallest abacus, each bead having a diameter of less than one nanometer. The finger used to move each bead is the ultrafine tip of the STM. Most recently, the Zurich team won accolades for squeezing carbon "buckyballs" with an electrified STM to create a molecular amplifier.


This group was awarded the 1997 Feynman Prize for modeling molecular gears that could be powered by a laser. The gears, which exist only in computer designs but are physically possible, would rotate at 100 billion turns per second. Because the devices they take into space must be small and light, consume very little power and be immune to cosmic radiation, nanoelectronics are vital to NASA's long-term success.


Jane A. Alexander founded the ULTRA nanoelectronics program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Researchers there are dedicated to developing small, low-power, fast micro-electronic devices for next-generation information-processing systems, or nanocomputers. Their work could be used in everything from virtual reality displays to cruise missiles.


George Whitesides, Harvard's Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry, extends classical chemical techniques into the realms of biology, solid-state physics and engineering for his groundbreaking work in self-assembling chemical compounds. In 1996 he patterned computer chip circuits just 30 nanometers wide. Whitesides' circuits could give a single chip the ability to perform at speeds of more than a teraflop. Today, the most powerful supercomputer, utilizing 9,000 Pentium Pro processors, is capable of performing one teraflop, or 30 trillion floating point operations per second.


In 1996, James Tour, a chemistry professor at the University of South Carolina, along with his colleagues, created the first functioning quantum wire -- a single molecular chain that completed a circuit between a gold lead surface and the tip of an STM. Tour is now testing a molecular transistor that, if successfully completed and combined with the molecular wire, would constitute a historic advance in microelectronics.


Nadrian Seeman won the 1995 Feynman prize in nanotechnology for building cubes and more complex structures out of synthetic DNA. Such structures could be the building blocks of molecular mechanical devices and could also be used to create super-resilient "smart" materials.


Many scientists disavow Eric Drexler's popular futuristic ideas about nanotechnology, which include a $5 nose spray containing molecular mechanisms that would stamp out influenza viruses; the ability to rebuild ecosystems and restore endangered species by cloning genes; and nanotechnological weapons that would build themselves after arriving at the target undetected. Drexler and his proponents argue that science is too often lacking in his brand of long-view thinking and that it's better to prepare for the possibilities in advance than to confront them when it's too late. Drexler's work has also inspired a new genre of science fiction, "nanopunk," which incorporates the utopian and dystopian possibilities of nanotechnology in its plotlines. Chair of the Foresight Institute, Drexler helps award the annual Feynman prize in nanotechnology.


Head of the Computational Nanotechnology Project at Xerox's Parc research center in Palo Alto, Calif., Ralph Merkle works closely with Eric Drexler on computer simulations of molecular machine components. Specifically, a nano-robotic arm that could one day act as a replicator -- a machine that builds itself and thus could be used to create nearly anything from its base molecular components. Merkle is best known for introducing a new paradigm in computer cryptography utilizing public and private key technology.

The Tools:

Although micromechanical and nanoelectronic devices get cheaper and faster as they get smaller, they also become prohibitively expensive to create. One electron beam lithography system at the Cornell University Nanofabrication Facility costs $6 million. No surprise then that researchers are looking for better and faster tools.

In the meantime, scientists continue to forge the microcosmos, and their first stop is the computer terminal. Computers are essential to the entire nanofabrication process, from modeling to manufacturing. Scientists at NASA Ames have powerful, cutting-edge Silicon Graphics workstations on their desks to create complex 3-D chemical models. Many researchers simply write their own software programs for modeling chemicals, but HyperChem 5.0 and Gaussian 94 are two popular off-the-shelf programs. Whatever the software, designing the final product on a computer is the first step for any nanoscientist.

The trick is turning a computer design into a real object, and a very small one at that. Molecular nanotechnologists such as Nadrian Seeman actually use a process of trial and error (sometimes referred to as "shake and bake") to puzzle together tiny structures like the DNA cube -- put the right chemical combinations in a beaker and hope for success. Mechanical nanoscientists use more precise techniquesinvolving lithography to carve precise structures into silicon wafers.

The wafers are coated with a filmic substance and exposed, so that an image of the pattern that will ultimately be etched on the chip is created. Once exposed, the pattern is carved onto the silicon wafer using reactive ion etching, a sort of sandblasting with charged ions. But photolithography can produce structures only as small as 250 nanometers. Smaller objects, such as the nanoguitar, require electron-beam lithography. By drawing on the wafer with a focused beam of electrons, scientists can pattern objects down to 20 nanometers.

After the nanoscale object has been manufactured, it must be studied. The electron microscope is an essential tool for any nanotechnologist. "They're really enabling us to get down in that nanometer playground and direct the organization of matter on that scale," says Daniel T. Colbert, a member of Richard Smalley's research team at Rice University. That may explain why there are so many types of electron microscopes and still more in development.

The most important of the lot is the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Developed at IBM's Zurich Research Lab, the STM was the first microscope that let scientists see individual atoms. Its inventors, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, won the Nobel Prize in physics for this microscope in 1986. The STM has a conical tip that ends in a single atom. As the tip of the microscope moves across the surface of an object, an atomic topographical image of the sample is created. By applying a bias voltage between the tip and the sample material, scientists can inject or eject electrons -- allowing them to not only see individual atoms, but to manipulate them. This device was used by Don Eigler to spell "IBM" with 35 xenon atoms.

"What holds this field together is that they're all using the same tools," says Lynn Rathbun of the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility. "The difference is what they want to do with them."


Imagine a microscopic assembly line. Cubes constructed from DNA travel along a conveyor belt made of cilia, the tiny hairs that extend from the surface of cells. Along the way, robotic arms insert individual molecules into the cube, each molecule building on the last. This entire micro-manufacturing plant fits into a modern printer, which spits out sheets of white paper. Although these sheets weigh as much as a regular piece of paper, each fiber is actually a one pixel-sized robot with built-in memory equivalent to a Pentium Pro microchip. You ask the sheet of paper for information about the earthquake of 2054, and it flickers to life as a super high-definition television screen showing an encyclopedic documentary on the subject.

You stop the program and search for details on how San Francisco was rebuilt after the disaster. It tells you that a team of architects, physicists and chemists collaborated to create a workforce of nanocontractors, micromechanical robots programmed with architectural designs. A handful of these tiny robots, a few billion, were thrown on the crumbled remains of an old structure. Some of the robots were charged with breaking down the existing raw materials -- dirt, concrete, metal -- into molecular parts. These parts were then used by another set of nanobots to construct the walls and windows of new buildings.

This scenario may seem more likely to appear in a nanopunk sci-fi novel written by an author like Neal Stephenson, but micromachines are already present in our everyday lives. A tiny accelerometer in your automobile senses the impact of a crash and switches on a microcircuit that activates the air bags. Hospitals use tiny disposable microsensors to monitor a patient's blood pressure through the intravenous line. Products such as these not only exist today, but they're getting smaller as we speak.

In the next seven years, "Things will get wild," predicts Bill Spence, editor of NanoTechnology magazine. "In 15 years, all of a sudden there will be no more automobile workers, just car designers." In Spence's future, auto workers will be replaced by robotic molecular assemblers.

At least one company, Zyvex, is already at work on the molecular assembler. James R. Von Ehr II, who founded the Texas-based facility in 1995, is the first to admit, however, that pioneering companies often fail and that the first molecular assembler will be incredibly difficult to build. But if built correctly, the assembler will also be a replicator, capable of reproducing a thousand copies of itself.

The effort will require plenty of money and even more computing power. That's why Spence is putting together a distributed computing project that will allow his group to model the various designs for nanocomputers. Any desktop PC connected to the Net can take part: a few thousand volunteers will be able to download a screensaver that takes a fraction of each computer's power and lends it to a central computer. When added together over time, the combined power will equal that of a supercomputer, which will allow Spence's group to render complex molecular models in 3-D.

It's a downright duct-tape and spit solution to the problem compared with the work being done by most scientists, many of whom criticize the utopian ideas espoused by Spence and his guru, Eric Drexler. "No one knows how to make those things yet; maybe somebody will. I don't think those guys will," says Dr. Julius Rebek, director of the Skaggs Institute. Rebek has been experimenting with self-assembling molecules for years and says, "Right now there's no obvious path to what they're drawing."

Although Spence may be overoptimistic, nanotechnology is advancing rapidly, and the next breakthrough could come from anywhere -- several Japanese electronics corporations are busy working on single-electron transistors that can be created with current lithographic techniques. Wherever the breakthrough does come from, one thing is clear: Big things often come from small particles.

Talk to the Scientists:

Dr. Daniel Colbert, one of the scientists who works with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Richard Smalley at the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University and Dr. Richard Tiberio and Dusti n Carr of the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility answered some of your questions about nanotechnology. They're no longer online with us, but you can read their responses below. Thanks for all of your interest and support.

The Scientists Respond


I'm all in favor of this science at the smallest level because this is where most of our problems begin. Is this tiny technology being used today in the area of medicine, such as fighting cancer? If not, is it being considered, and could you explain how i t would be used when it comes of age? Keep up the good work and I hope you guys have a lot of constructive accidents; as Edison once related was how most of his discoveries came about.


From Daniel Colbert:


Your question gives me an opportunity to clarify an important point about nanoscale science and technology. It's actually been with us for a very long time. In particular, chemists and biochemists do nanoscale science everyday. Most of this is what we at Rice refer to as the "wet" side of nano. All of biochemistry and ce ll biology provide examples of this. The most compelling to my mind are enzymes: nanoscale machines that do highly specific tasks with great efficiency. So, to answer your question directly, yes, nanotechnology is certainly being applied in the area of medicine, as it has been for decades, well before the current craze.

On the other hand, there are some emerging differences. These are largely occuring where the "wet" side meets the "dry" side, the latter not requiring water. An example might be using buckyballs to block the active site of the HIV protease enzyme, thus interrupting the life cycle of the virus. Or using various nanotechnologies (e.g., atomic force microscopy) to probe living systems. These sorts of activities exemplify highly active areas of research in the nano area that are receiving much attention, and will, I think, eventually pay large dividends.

I must also take this opportunity, since you raised it, Bob, to disagree with you about the efficacy of the Edisonian approach to science and engineering. While Edison did meet with significant success, I would say it was in spite of, rather that because of his "try everything" approach. Fortunately, science has come a long way since then, and most researchers put considerable thought behind their work before trying things. One reason is that without this prior thought, the research will not be funded!

Dan Colbert

From Dustin Carr:

Hi Bob,

I don't know of any direct cancer-fighting uses, but that does not mean there are not any. Nanotechnology is very important, however, in the production of tools for diagnosis. One type of tool that is being actively developed here at the Nanofabrication Facility is a technique of DNA sequencing that can be done rapidly on a single silicon chip. Many people are developing implanted probe devices that can be put inside the body to monitor conditions.


Hello, I am an undergraduate looking into wildlife with an interest in technology associated with animals. Do you see a future for this new technology in the outdoors for help, recovery or monitoring of wildlife? I enjoy watching the development of tec hnology and hope to make a contribution in my field of interest.

from Lincoln University
Jefferson City, MO

From Daniel Colbert:


Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, I don't know much about this area and its application needs. I can imagine that nano-devices might be of use in monitoring, collecting, and transmitting data on wildlife, but I don't really have any concrete ideas about what form this would take.

Dan Colbert

From Dustin Carr:


I can not say that much effort is being into this right now, but that does sound like an interesting area of research.

Hi. If nanomachines could move atoms and compounds around to form basically anything, could we create water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, ozone, and the other necessary gases needed for an atmosphere? If so, wouldn't that mean we could terraform our Moon and Mars rather quickly if the proper funding was available?


From Daniel Colbert:


Your question gives me the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about nanotechnology. Nanomachines are not necessarily required to do the kinds of thing you're talking about, if by that you mean things like the "universal assembler." In fact, we already have a mature, elaborate technology base to transform various m olecules into others: it's called CHEMISTRY, and is very much at the heart of nanotechnology. That is because both nanotech and chemistry are about manipulating molecules to make materials that have properties we are interested in.

So, for example, the catalyst in the catalytic converter in your car converts toxic carbon monoxide to the more benign carbon dioxide. Most plastic fibers, like polyurethane and polyethylene, are produced catalytically. There are lots of examples. My p oint is that in many senses, nanoscale science and technology is nothing new, but rather a continuation of what's been going on for centuries: the manipulation of matter at the smallest scale relevant to producing new materials with desired properties. T he biggest difference may be that we now have wonderful techniques, such as probe microscopies and electron microscopy, that allow us to probe these materials at the nanoscale. Fundamentally, however, we're still doing chemistry. Bottom line: nanotech i s not just about machines and assemblers; it's really about gaining control over the fundamental constituents of materials -- atoms and molecules. Whether this is done by "machines" like enzymes, or by other chemical means isn't the main issue. I'm conf ident that technologies that emerge from nano will use both.

Dan Colbert

From Dustin Carr:


If nanomachines could ever do such things as this, I assure you they would be much too slow to do anything as significant as terraforming. Anyway, if you had that many nanomachines, they would probably be as much of a nuisance as ants.

I sincerely doubt that nanomachines will ever do much molecular fusion and fission, and certainly they will never do any nuclear fusion and fission.

Using chemistry can do much of what you are saying, and can do it quite rapidly. There is no need for nanomachines in this area.


Hi, my name is Daniel and I'm a high school student in Diamond Bar, Ca. I'm very interested in this stuff. I was wondering, if biology is nanotechnology that works, can't you just work with organic materials and other natural chemicals on the nano lev el instead of metallic materials and other human-made substances? Are natural or organic substances any different from the man-made except the fact that they are not that techy in our human mentality? Or is this all just a crazy thought?

Thank you,

From Dustin Carr:


Many researchers are looking at organic materials for both nanoelectronic and micro/nanomechanics. I myself am embarking on a project to make nanomechanical systems using polymers. Researchers elsewhere, such as George Whitesides at Harvard and James To ur at Univ. of South Carolina, are looking at systems of self-assembling organic molecules to be used for electronics and nanofabrication. Harold Craighead's group at Cornell has been looking into self-assembled monolayers of organic molecules to be used for lithographic patterning with electron beam tools.

Researchers in nanotechnology are willing to try anything in order to get things to work on this scale. There is not really any bias towards metal and semiconductors, except that they both have excellent mechanical and electrical properties. Organic mol ecules also have many interesting properties that are continually being explored, and are certain to become more important for nanofabrication as time goes on.


From Daniel Colbert:


Keep thinking crazy thoughts -- the world needs more creativity! Actually, it's not so crazy at all. First, as I've said above, there already are lots of biological nanomachines, e.g., enzymes. More to your point, I think, is an area being pursued for a future generation of electronics, built largely from organic mol ecules, called "molecular electronics." The idea is to use molecules, which are intrinsically nanoscale, as the elements and connectors for electronic circuits and devices. The need is coming: the steady miniturization of integrated circuits we've seen over the past 25 years (following the celebrated Moore's Law), is approaching a brick wall. The technologies currently used by the semiconductor industry will soon be unable to produce feature sizes of metal on silicon small enough to continue the trend. The industry requires new technologies if it desires to continue.

Another approach that departs from the semiconductor industry model is molecular electronics. The field is a couple of decades old, with not a great deal to show for it, but recent (nano) developments may make it blossom. Our group has great interest in using carbon nanotubes, a class of which are coherent metallic conductors (quantum wires), as a basis for a molecular electronics. This should get fun in the next few years!

Dan Colbert


I am very interested in most aspects of science, and have a question about nanotechnology: Could you make your nanodevices have a power source strong enough to broadcast a radio signal out of the body? If so, what source of power would you use? I was considering: if you were not putting these nanodevices in the body, but rather in outer space, could you use a radioactive isotope as a power source? Also, could you make a nanodevice that could levitate in the air by covering it in a reactive surface of fans?

Andrew Cantino
The Science Page

From Daniel Colbert:


Most nanodevices, including MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) that have been discussed or made, do not carry their power source with them, although this is not prohibited in principle. Rather, they are somehow connected, mechanically (e.g., an atomic force microscope tip, or an electrochemical sensor) or electromag netically (e.g., a nanoantenna) to the macroscopic world for their power. The application, design and power requirements will dictate how power can be delivered to the device.

Dan Colbert

From Dustin Carr:


These are all interesting ideas. We could probably make short range adio transmitters that could go inside a body. I don't know about the est. For a levitating device, the problem would be that power sources are usually pretty heavy, but that is an interesting question.

Dustin I just finished reading about the nanotech of the future, and I enjoyed the possibilities. I would like to ask what you think of my ideas.

1] A nanotech suit with the capibilty to be programed to lock onto the D.N.A. of one person and change according to the conditions. For example, The suit would take on the form of a dress suit in the morning, and pants and a t-shirt in the afternoon. This same suit could take on the form of a revolutionary space suit. 2] Some form of nano-transportation. For example, a car made completely of nano-machines. Or a space shuttle made the same way.


From Daniel Colbert:

I think it's great to dream about possibilities. I tend to feel that the kinds of things you are talking about are rather too far down the road to comment on very seriously. Most scientists and engineers in nano are working right now towards establishin g some measure of control over atoms and molecules at a pretty fundamental level. This is necessarily rather incremental. Science doesn't typically work too well when very big bites are attempted at once.

Dan Colbert

From Dustin Carr:

P Double L,

Cool ideas, but you would do better to go into science fiction writing than nanofabrication.

I don't want to disappoint everybody, but most people who consider themselves nanotechnologists do not do research into anything resembling these ideas, nor do they believe that such things will ever really exist. That does not mean that they won't, it is just that many unforeseeable events must occur before we can even come close to achieving this.

Some might say that it takes vision to bring great things into reality. I agree fully. For instance, it took vision for engineers to recognize the importance of the transistor, and extend into the modern computer. It took vision for electrical lines to be strung across the world after electricity was understood.

I question, however, the usefulness of a vision that is not based on anything that is currently achievable with any of the existing technology. Not a single micromachine has ever been used to assemble anything significant atom by atom, or molecule by mole cule. We all see pictures of designs made of single atoms placed on a surface, what we are not told is that those atoms will move around, and the patterns will fade away within a few hours after they are made.

So the vision of nanomachines running our world and having extensive usefulness is built upon techonologies that do not even exist at this time. It is like having a vision of building the Hoover Dam before electricity was discovered and understood.

Nanomachines will have an important niche in our technology in the future, but it is doubtful that they will ever play a major part in our daily lives. Sorry to disappoint those of you who may have been led to think otherwise, but at least it makes for g ood science fiction. I think the advancements that are being made in electronics, biophysics, communication, etc., due to nanofabrication will still be enough to make the technology of the future something worth dreaming about.


I think it's facinating that in such a short discussion, the reprocussions of nanotechnology have ranged from the development of the ultimate utopian society to the ultimate destruction of mankind. Relax guys. They said the same things about robots.


From Dustin Carr:

Heck, they said the same thing about light bulbs.

From Daniel Colbert:

Michael, Hear, hear.
Dan Colbert

Hi! I have always wondered how you can construct such a tiny thing like a nanoguitar and make it actually work. It is pretty neat if you ask me! Do you use robots to make them? I've looked around and found out that you use powerful microscopes to look at them. Is this a fun job for you?
-- Drew


Almost all scientists love their work. I made the nanoguitar using a technique called electron-beam lithography. I use a large machine that generates a super-small beam of electrons and shoots these electrons at the surface of a silicon wafer that is coa ted with a thin layer of a plastic material. The electrons actually break chemical bonds in this plastic material, allowing me to remove the exposed areas with solvents such as alcohol.

Once this is done, the rest is pretty easy. I use various tools and chemicals that allow me to carve away the silicon material, leaving me with the design of the guitar.

I don't actually play this nanoguitar. It is just a demonstration of the type of technology we are developing. For my research, I make mechanical devices of a similar size to the nanoguitar. I use these to explore the mechanical behavior of ultrasmall sil icon structures, research that is important so that we can make smaller and smaller mechanical devices.


I am fascinated by nanotechnology from the point of view of an ordinary person. Having read Neal Stephenson's novel and various articles about the possibilities, one thing stands out: If you can develop nanotechnology that works, unless it is very expe nsive, it will render a huge number of construction and manufacturing processes obsolete and redundant. Little factories that can endlessly replicate (given raw material and energy) could tackle any construction project, small or large. While this confers many benefits, will it not have a huge impact on society as it is now? I can remember back in the 70s when people talked of the "leisure society." This might actually bring it to reality, except society does not have structures in place to make such a tr ansition smoothly. Do you have thoughts about these matters? I think history has made it abundantly clear that we cannot ignore new technologies, we must embrace them. That does pose a large question for me -- if I can't program computers, what do I do for a living in the 21st century?

I would be really pleased to hear any thoughts from you or your colleagues about what the impact might be.

Jocelyn Bolton (Mr)

From Dustin Carr:

Mr. Bolton,

We are still a long way from many of the advancements you mention. Nonetheless, your point is valid. Scientific progress has led to remarkable changes in the way we all have lived over the past hundred years, and it is reasonable to expect that this will continue. A technical education is always an advantage, but the world will always need many types of artisans and laborers, no matter how advanced science and nanotechnology becomes.

Don't worry about the future. Whatever changes occur will happen gradually enough for us all to keep up with them. Programming computers is a valuable skill, but just being able to use computers and software is most important.


From Daniel Colbert:

Dear Jocelyn,

I think you are exactly right when you say that "we must embrace [new technologies]." Advances are going to happen since human beings are built to be inquisitive. At the same time, I believe we should always strive for awareness of the societal impact of technological advances. We do have choices over what directions we pursue, and over how we use technologies. For example, we might decide that more money should be spent on solar energy technology so that we don't pollute the planet by burning fossil fue ls. Simultaneously, we might place limitations on the amount of pollution we are producing as we continue burning fossil fuels. We should never feel that technology is in control of us, as I believe we tend to do as a society. Part of being a society is d eciding together how we should behave as a group.

Now, to get back to the nano side of your question: I wouldn't worry too much about nanotechnology displacing jobs. All emerging technologies have fostered such fears, usually without solid reason. Typically, there arise at least as many new opportunitie s from new technologies as are "lost." Consider one of the most important technological developments in history: the printing press. Quite a few monks were thrown out of their work of copying manuscripts, but think of what was enabled: printers, paper man ufacturers, book binders, sellers and distributors, journalists, readers(!), not to mention papparazzi (ok, bad example). The result of most new technologies has been MORE opportunities, not less.

Finally, as I will no doubt return to in other messages, I have serious doubts about the so-called "Universal Assembler." I don't think the world is likely to be transformed by nanoscale machines that replicate themselves and do any task we program them to do. I think what is much more likely is the development of highly specialized nanoscale devices, machines and materials that behave in ways we design, much as nature has, over billions of years of evolution designed her nanoscale machines -- enzymes - - to perform highly specific chemical reactions.

Dan Colbert

Hi, I find your work very fascinating. I was wondering what projects each of you are currently working on and what implications those projects might have on my and my children's futures.

From Dustin Carr:


I work on a variety of projects that explore practical ways to make nanoscale structures for electronics and micro/nano-mechanics. It is hard to envision the exact impact that work like this will have on the future. The most obvious impact is that it will pave the way for many more generations of faster and faster computers. Micromechanics will also allow us to create many tiny machines that have special uses (such a accelerometers in airbags). The implications can not even be guessed at. We are only lay ing the groundwork now for nanotechnology.


From Daniel Colbert:

Dear Monty,

Thanks for your question. I work closely with Rick Smalley at Rice University, where fullerenes (e.g., buckyballs) were first discovered. We now work on the cousins of buckyballs -- fullerene nanotubes -- pure carbon entities consisting of a planar sheet of graphite (graphene) rolled up into a cylinder. It may have either a single layer (typically 1-2 nanometers in diameter) or 5-30 concentric layers. We are working almost exclusively with the former, single-wall nanotubes (SWNTs), because they are intrinsically freer of defects than their multiwall brothers. This means that all their material properties, such as strength, stiffness, toughness, electrical and thermal conductivites, can be quite close to the ideal. This is not the case for any other material, where defects always limit (often by factors of 100 or more) material properties. For example, when you pull on a steel wire, it never breaks in pracatice when all the atoms on either side of a plane in the material suddenly break their bonds simulteaneously. Instead, a crack develops due to stresses built up at a defect, and runaway propagation ensues, breaking the wire at dramatically lower tensile forces than would be predicted if defects are ignored. SWNTs, with their very high degree of perfection (i.e., nearly every carbon atom is in just the "right" place), offer the possibility for material properties very close to the idea, which happen to be wonderfully high. For example , SWNTs are already known to be the stiffest fibers known, and almost certainly the strongest. Their electrical properties are also of immense interest: they constitute quantum wires, exhibiting coherent transport of electrons over relatively long distanc es. They may provide a unique basis for molecular electronics, a hoped-for new generation of electronic devices. The list of potential applications can go on, but I'll reserve further discussion for other questions.

Our research has two main prongs. The first is to develop what we call the "molecular science and technology of fullerene nanotubes." This comprises activities such as taking raw SWNT material consisting of tangles of long SWNTs, and purifying it, cutting it into short lengths that can be manipulated, separating them from one another, sorting them by length and type, derivatizing their ends and sides, and assembling them into useful arrangements. These activities together form the enabling technologies f or making useful materials and devices from these incredible objects.

None of these applications will mean much, however, if we are forever stuck with the tiny amounts now available. The field has undergone an explosion over the past two years largely as a result of the discovery in our lab at Rice of a new method to produc e much higher quality SWNT material than had previously been available, allowing many of the fundamental studies characterizing the intrinsic properties of these tubes. Nevertheless, this method only makes around 10 grams of material per day, and is not easy to scale to larger amounts. We feel that ultimately, ton amounts of this material will be needed, and a scaleable, much more economical method for production will be required. Our group is fast at work on exploring routes to bulk production of SWNTs .

Dan Colbert

I do not believe that the scientists who are working on "building the future one molecule at a time" truly understand the future they are building. Consider this: If I get ahold of a nanorobot that can build anything from basic compounds, I could buil d anything I wanted. Nerve gas, weapons, robot drones, soldiers, whole cities underground, a tower that reached into space to launch space craft, anything. Man's heart is set on evil, it is in our nature and this will be the undoing of us all. You're buil ding your own executioner one molecule at a time.

From Dustin Carr:

The same has been said many times about many technologies, yet mankind is still doing pretty well. Scientists are usually too busy thinking about solutions to ponder problems such as these.

From Daniel Colbert:

Dear Travis,

Please see my response to Jocelyn. I can't agree with you about "Man's heart [being] set on evil." We are not all going back to being hunter-gatherers; new technologies will continue, and we need to accept that. We can, however, always be vigilant about how we use technology. This is something I think we can all agree on, and work together on.

Dan Colbert

I'm wondering what you all think of Eric Drexler and his, I guess you'd call it, "utopian" vision.
- Paula

From Dustin Carr:


It is important to have visions, even if the visions don't turn out to resemble reality. Drexler's vision is a very, very long way from becoming a reality, and it is not the primary focus of nanotechnology today. But who knows? With a couple of groundbrea king discoveries, we could be well on our way to his vision by the end of the next century.


From Daniel Colbert:

Dear Paula,

As I hinted to Jocelyn, I am not a Drexlarian. I do feel that Eric Drexler has done wonders publicizing the possibilities for nanotechnology, and most people in the field are grateful for that and admire what he has done. The difficulty that some of us have is with his specific vision, particularly the "universal assembler." Rather than my going on at length, I'd like to refer you to remarks made by Rick Smalley at the 1996 Welch Foundation meeting, in which he outlines his argument against the Drexlarian universal assembler. You can find this online at

Dan Colbert

I have seen some of the videos of micromachines and a lot of them have small bugs like aphids, dust mites and spider mites on them. Do these little things cause problems in the micromachines?

Dear Drew,

The pictures you have seen with mites on MEMS devices are to give a feel for scale. As far as I know, they are not known to interfere with the operation of the devices (I think they know to keep away!). However, dust is a problem when manufacturing MEMS, and integrated circuits, for that matter. That's why it's all done in "clean rooms," where dust content is kept to a VERY low level, and why, as in the Intel commercials, workers must where special suits.

Dan Colbert

We've received many questions from people concerned about the social implications of a futuristic vision like Eric Drexler's where nano factories can build compounds and structures from their base molecular parts. Dennis Costello from the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility responds to this notion below.

The question is what will people do for a living in the absence of a production-oriented economy? Or, more precisely, in an economy which includes completely automated production? That's a very interesting question, and one which apparently has been addre ssed only in the realm of science fiction. People have looked at pieces of it -- the Luddites are a famous example of people feeling their livelihoods threatened by automated production, and reacting in a very human, although negative way -- they smashed the machines. One can find a similar message in a classic movie from the late 40s (early 50s?) whose title was something like 'The Man in the Grey Wool Suit' -- where an indestructible fabric was invented, putting mill workers' jobs at risk. For now, though, the problem also lies in the province of science fiction. Eric Drexler's predictions aside, the foreseeable future does not include universal assemblers; machines that pick atoms from a soup of raw materials and, as instructed, build the car or building or suit of clothes. The foreseeable future does include nanomachines that are very like today's computer chips, but with moving parts. This technology will allow people to build things like accelerometers for car air bags that are more rel iable, cheaper and less expensive than other designs. Prosthetics for those who are deaf due to injury or disease to the cochlea. Hand-held inertial navigation systems cheap enough to take on a camping trip. TVs that fill an entire wall, but are less than an inch thick, and with each pixel implemented as a triad of flappers moving 60 times a second. Optical-fiber switching systems where the fiber itself is moved from one place to another. Neat gadgets. Useful gadgets. But in the great scheme of things, ga dgets that represent incremental changes to the economy, not revolutionary changes.

History is indeed replete with the struggle between those who would put technology to use for evil purposes, and those with more noble aims. Technology is simply and literally knowing how to do things. The choice of what things to do is another subject en tirely -- philosophy. People have, for many years, predicted that particular technologies would spell the doom of the entire human race, if not more. The machine gun, the torpedo and submarine, the dreadnought (battleship), the tank, the atom bomb. And th ose who have foretold doom have not been entirely wrong. But I'm optimistic enough to believe that the good guys always win in the end. Given that nanotechnology represents an evolution and not a revolution in the abilities of humanity, I'm not too worrie d that the Saddam Husseins of the world are going to use it.

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