Nanotech: The Tiny Science Is Big, and Getting Bigger

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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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