Sunday, November 16, 2008

History of Nanotechnology

Figure 1: DNA origami (approximately 100 nanometers in size)
Source: Rothemund (2006)

The idea of nanotechnology (although he did not call it nanotechnology) started when Richard Feynman (1959) gave a talk at Caltech called “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”. He suggested the “possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom” and “if we go down far enough, all our devices can be mass produced so that they are perfect copies of one another.” The term nanotechnology was first used by Taniquchi in 1974.

In 1977, Eric Drexler began to discuss the possibilities of molecular nanotechnology. He wrote two books on molecular nanotechnology: one for a general audience Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986); and one for a technical audience Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (1992). In these books Drexler argued that improvements in molecular nanotechnology were reliant on progress to be made in other technologies. The invention of the scanning tunneling microscope in 1986 was a major help as it allowed atomic resolution for the first time.

Early on, there was a debate between two of the giants in the field of nanotechnology: Eric Drexler, who argued that molecular nanotechnology was possible and Richard Smalley, who argued it would not be technically possible because of steric issues (i.e. “fat fingers”) and molecular adherence problems (i.e. “sticky fingers”) (Phoenix, 2003a). The former refers to the clumsiness to discriminate at the level of individual atoms and the later refers to the propensity of molecules to stick together. This debate was quickly solved by the rapid progress made in nanotechnology (e.g. Eigler & Schweizer (1990) published the finding that they could move a single atom). Thus, many of the technical problems of working at the nanolevel could be overcome therefore highlighting the enormous potential of this technology. The technologies of scanning force and atomic force microscopy have increasingly allowed minute manipulations to be made at the nanoscale.

In 2000, the US Government announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) to expand research into nanotechnology and provided funding of US$500 million in the first year (by 2006, this had increased to US$1.4 billion). The ambitious goals of this initiative included shrinking the entire contents of the Library of Congress into a device the size of a sugar cube, assembling new materials from the ‘bottom up’, using gene and drug delivery technologies to detect and target cancer cells, and developing new technologies to remove the smallest water and air pollutants.

Amongst this early optimism, Bill Joy (2000), who was then Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, published an essay in Wired magazine that highlighted the dangers of nanotechnology. In this essay, Joy called for a “relinquishment” of dangerous research pathways such as self-replicating nanomachines that could get out of control and begin destroying the environment. This created much debate. There was concern amongst nanotechnology scientists that public fears could greatly limit the growth of nanotechnology as a result of funding being denied or ‘over-cautious’ regulations.

The risks of nanotechnology were also discussed in science fiction. For example, Prey by Michael Crichton (2002) highlighted the problem of nanomachines self-replicating out of control to create so-called ‘grey goo’. There was also beginning to be opposition to nanotechnology. For example, the Action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) protested against the funding given to the NNI by the US Government. ETC (2003 and 2004) is against nanotechnology because of its risks and has called for a moratorium on nanotechnology.

The insurance industry also began to consider the risks involved in nanotechnology. For example, Swiss Re (2004 and 2005) attempted to assess the risks of nanotechnology given the large number of unknowns and its possible large impact on society. Morgan (2005) suggested that the development of a framework for informing the risk analysis and risk management of nanoparticles was needed.

Nanotechnology continues to quickly progress: Rothemund (2006) used nanotechnology to create Nanoshapes or DNA origami (see Figure 1 above) and published the complex nanoscience behind his creations in Nature. The Robo Cup 2007 featured a remote controlled Swiss-made nanosized soccer player (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: Nanosoccer robot competing in the Robo Cup 2007. Although not ‘true’ nano-size because greater than 100 nanometers, it demonstrates the rapid progress being made.


In April 2008, scientists from Hewlett-Packard reported in the journal Nature that they had designed a simple circuit element that they believe “will enable tiny, powerful computers that could imitate biological functions”. The device, called a memristor (see figure 3), could “make it possible to build extremely dense computer memory chips” (Tour & Tao, 2008). This revolutionary device could allow many new developments to be quickly made in artificial intelligence. The ability to create machines that have a ‘consciousness’ is becoming a real possibility. What would this mean for humanity (or other life)? It could radically alter our current systems and institutions.

Figure 3: The image was taken by an atomic force microscope and shows a simple circuit consisting of 17 memristors. Each wire is 50 nanometers wide or approx 150 atoms.

Source: Tour & Tao (2008)

There are already nanotechnology products widely available for consumers and businesses to purchase, including sunscreens, toothpastes, sanitary ware coatings, car tyres, golf clubs and even food packaging. Although estimates vary, it has been estimated that the current global market for nanotechnology is worth US$40 billion and it has been predicted to be worth up to US$1 trillion by 2015-2020 (Tegart, 2006, p.11). However, there is growing concern that the safety of these nanomaterial products has not been fully tested and many unknowns about the effects of possibly highly dangerous nanomaterials being released into the environment remain. Public trust of nanotechnology is critical. Also current regulations may not be sufficient to cover the risks involved and they may need to be tightened to provide better protection from nanotechnology risks.

The Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars (WWICS)[1] maintains a list of nanomaterial products on its website currently puts the number at 610 products produced by 322 companies, located in 20 countries. However, the exact number of nanomaterial products is contested. Journalist Howard Lovy (2007) has argued the WWICS derives its list from product claims rather than their own criteria or assessment and in this way contributes to public alarm. There are also many products at the early stages of discovery and development. The extent of investment required to develop these technologies is large and possibly high risk. For example, consider the IT boom and the enormous amounts of money made and then the bust and the huge losses incurred [reference needed here]. A number of scholars acknowledge that, as with other technologies, there are both benefits and risks involved in nanotechnology (Treder, 2004; Tucker, 2007). The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering (2004) together released a report that highlighted both positive and negative impacts of nanotechnology.
by Random Man (2008)

For more see: Nanotechnology - risks and benefits and What is nanotechnology?

Update: see also Electron microscopy enters the picometer scale

[1] Project on Emerging Nanotechnology

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