Nanotech: The Tiny Science Is Big, and Getting Bigger

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 24, 2005
After decades of hype, speculation, and multimillion-dollar laboratory research, the long-promised nanotechnology revolution is finally coming to a store near you. For proof, check out the transparent sunscreens, spillproof pants, and tennis rackets with extra pop now on sale.

Nanotechnology gets its name from the nanometer, a unit of measurement that is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is about 20,000 nanometers thick. Scientists say materials and devices manufactured at the nanoscale promise to change life as we know it.

"I'd say [nanotechnology] has the potential to be truly revolutionary," said Gregory Rorrer, a chemical engineer at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "That's why there's so much interest in it right now."

Rorrer is less than a year into a four-year, 1.3-million-dollar (U.S.) grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a process to produce nanostructured semiconductor materials using single-celled marine organisms called diatoms.

The grant is a small piece of the billions of dollars the United States government is funneling into research and development to spur the nanotechnology revolution.

Lawrence Gasman is the founder of NanoMarkets, a Sterling, Virginia-based nanotech market analysis firm. He said the coming revolution will be akin to the plastics revolution of the 1960s. At that time, plastics transformed everything from kitchen appliances and food containers to housing construction and medical safety.

"What it's really about is applying the latest and greatest in materials science to solving real-world problems," Gasman said. "That's where the money will be made, and that's where [nanotechnology] will change lives."

Nanotech Dream

Scientists are intrigued by materials and devices built at the nanoscale, because they bridge the realm of behavior between Newtonian physics (forces like gravity represented by apples falling out of trees, for example) and quantum mechanics (the laws of physics that apply at very small scales such as those found in atoms). Straddling both realms, nanomaterials have unique properties.

For example, the element germanium glows blue at the nanoscale when energy is applied to it. Rorrer, the OSU chemical engineer, said the property has a host of applications in electronic and medical-imaging technologies.

Medieval stained glass window makers are considered the first nanotechnologists. These craftsmen understood the nanoproperties of gold, which gives glass different colors depending on the concentration of gold nanoparticles in it.

Gasman, the nanotech-market analyst, said it wasn't until the several decades ago, that nanotechnology began to take off. The catalyst was the advent of high-powered microscopes and tools that could manipulate materials at the nanoscale. "A lot of these tools for manipulating things at the molecular level, seeing things at the molecular level, only evolved in the last 10 to 15 years," he said.

The original vision of nanoscale applications was put forth in 1977 by Eric Drexler, then an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Inspired by the emerging field of genetic engineering, Drexler envisioned tiny machines—assemblers—that could cheaply and quickly build any physical object, starting with raw materials at the molecular level.

Drexler's vision and the subsequent excitement about a molecular-construction boom led some to dub him the godfather of nanotechnology.

Some scientists say molecular assemblers are impossible. Skeptics include Richard Smalley, the director of the Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Smalley was the recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of closed, hollow cages of carbon atoms known as buckyballs.

In 1989 Drexler co-founded the Foresight Institute in Palo Alto, California, with Christine Peterson. The nanotech think tank defines nanotechnology as the coming ability to build products with atomic precision.

"The goal of nanotech is control of the structure of matter, right down to the individual atoms and molecules," explained Peterson, who serves as the institute's vice president and spokesperson. "This ability could affect the quality of virtually every physical structure, from products we manufacture to our internal organs after surgery."

Today nanoscale materials and devices are built using nanoparticles. A nanoparticle is "essentially a piece of matter with just a couple of hundred atoms associated with it," Rorrer, the OSU chemical engineer, explained. "It's one step above the molecular level."

Today and Tomorrow

Most nanotechnology products currently in the marketplace are primarily for the spring-break crowd. They include sunscreens, clothing, and sporting goods. But researchers say these applications are only a fraction of what's to come.

Gasman, the market analyst, said future materials and devices made at the nanoscale will allow for smaller, faster electronics; more efficient gasoline; cheap, flexible solar panels; and detailed, microscopic images of human cells.

Peterson, meanwhile, has her eyes on nanodevices with moving parts, so-called nanomachines. "The most ambitious goal for these will be nanoscale surgery in medicine, bringing nanolevel, three-dimensional control and drug-style chemical action together for the first time."

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