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Before I can really address this topic properly I have to answer “What is Nanotechnology and why the hype?” Currently the term nano has been thrown around a lot in recent years. Mostly this is the desire of researchers to grab the research money that is out there and using buzz words do help turn heads. Nanotechnology is a grab bag of different fields of science. It takes from condensed-matter physics, engineering, molecular biology and large swaths of chemistry. Even the government was convinced by the hype to create The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is a multi-agency program intended to provide a big funding boost to nanoscience and engineering.
But what constitutes nanotechnology research? Even scientists have a hard time with that question. "It depends on whom you ask," Stanford biophysicist Steven M. Block told at a symposium on nanotechnology. "Some folks apparently reserve the word to mean whatever it is they do as opposed to whatever it is anyone else does."
But what most scientists seem to agree on is what is considered Nanotechnology. Which is the future manufacture of molecular size materials, devices and possible machines. On the other hand many leading scientist that are pushing for the development of nanotechnology see it as molecular manufacturing or, more simply, building things one atom or molecule at a time with programmed nanoscopic robotarms.
The reason we have this great interest in using nanostructures stems comes from the idea that superior electrical, chemical, mechanical or optical properties may be achieved at these smaller scales. Also biological and medicine research in the nanotechnology area is on its way. One company, Quantum Dot Corporation, has already has been doing research in semiconductor quantum dots as labels in biological experiments, drug-discovery research, and diagnostic tests, among other applications. Nano is receiving enthusiastic scrutiny from some big companies in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. Led by IBM, Lucent Technologies, and Hewlett-Packard, along with Samsung and Siemens , big industrial companies are pumping significant sums into nanotech research, as are governments around the world.
Buckyballs--those soccer-ball-shaped carbon molecules discovered in 1985 by a team led by Rice University's Richard E. Smalley--are roughly 1 nm in diameter. Carbon nanotubes are about 1.4 nm thick. The latest entrants: slightly fatter nanotube-like wires made from silicon, gallium nitride, and other semiconducting materials. These nanotubes are showing some of the most potential for use in both research and applications ranging from computers to ultra high strength cables.
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Also on the medical side of the research bunkyballs could be used to deliver a drug to a precise target and thus minimize side effects, buckyballs can be assembled into shapes that fit snugly into receptors on the surface of specific cells. The balls could be coated with drugs that disrupt the cell's reproductive cycle. Such treatments are now in the works for cancer, AIDS, and other diseases.
Of all the current projects and research in nanotechnology the one that grabed my attention the most was the gamble that HightLife Systems is doing. The Scripps Howard News Service reported Oct. 4, 2002, that a proposal to build a 62,000-mile elevator to space has received $570,000 in funding from NASA. A company named HighLift Systems plans an "elevator that stretches 62,000 miles straight up from a platform floating in the Pacific Ocean. If all goes as planned, the elevator should be carrying cargo, such as satellites, into space within 15 years." The project hinges on a practical method to refine carbon nanotube composites and on $7 billion to $10 billion in additional funding.
An "assembler" is the main goal of “nanoengineers”, which was first described in the writings of nanotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler, head of Foresight Institute in Palo Alto, Calif and the author of “Engines of Creation”. It's a molecular sized robot that could be programmed to assemble atoms into gears and other components of nanomachines.
This brings us to molecular manufacturing. This is not like micromachining which starts at the bottom and works up, building materials and structures one atom at a time. It can be done crudely by using scanning tunneling microscopes. To achieve viable nanoscale assembly, a system of molecular "assemblers" could be used. "assemblers" are self-replicating molecules capable of reproducing themselves in large numbers and then gathering and positioning other atoms and molecules in desired constructions.. In such processes, industrial waste would be minimized, recycling of materials would be almost total, energy would be used most efficiently, and a vast number of new products and capabilities would be made possible. Miniaturization Technologies, a recent study published by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, estimated that the first versions of the molecular "assemblers" may be realized in 5 to 10 years.
But how are we going to develop these tiny robots? Well for one we are learning much of proteins, which could be considered molecular “assemblers” themselves. Protein engineers can now synthesize all 20 common amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. They have even begun to design synthetic proteins with novel properties. Scientists are racing to catalog the functions of proteins, how they fold, and discover properties of synthetic proteins. One way to use these proteins is by placing a custom protein on the tip of an atomic resolution microscope to grab a specific molecule out of a chemical solution and physically place that molecule at a specific sight on a nanotechnology machine under construction. And the use of capsids could speed the process of building the parts for a developing assembler especially the “brains” of the assembler.
Two biological researchers Mark Young and Trevor Douglas, both at Montana State University, Bozeman have developed the use empty viral protein coats, known as capsids, to have the interior to be used as a minilab or processing plant. By changing the protein subunits of the capsids they could change how materials in the interior reacted, in their case they wanted a negative interior for the growth of crystallized metal oxides. They found that they could array the nanocrystals precisely in two- and three-dimensional lattices. During the manufacturing process, the nanocrystals can be optimized to serve as magnetic memory by varying their size, shape and properties. In nanocrystals composed of an iron-cobalt-nickel alloy, for example, the magnetic strength of the nanocrystals can be tweaked by changing the iron-to-nickel ratio, so that memory settings are stable, yet changeable. This gives the memory both read and write capabilities. And the most important part of the capsids that has been found is every nanocrystal lattice is the same if made by the same capsids.
The field of computers will most likely give use the biggest insight and methods to manipulate atoms and molecules at low cost and energies. The computer industry has it’s long term future hanging on the possibilities of nano research.
Many different fields of academia are needed to truly work with nanotechnology. Many students wanting to going into nanotechnology research will find that they have to mix and match the many courses they have can choose from, many times from other majors other than their own. The study of physical systems is founded on physics. Understanding basic classical mechanics and electromagnetism is essential, as is a knowledge of at least the rudiments of quantum mechanics. Anyone aiming to do any sort of sophisticated work in chemistry and molecular machines can benefit from deeper knowledge of quantum mechanics. "Quantum mechanics" is a broad area, however. The quantum mechanics of interest here is the general quantum mechanics of electrons in matter, the sort studied by chemists and solid-state physicists. Both quantum chemistry and solid state physics are topics of great relevance to nanotechnology. Also nanomachines and nanoelectronic will most likely be greatly influenced by heat. To deal with this one needs knowledge of thermodynamics and of statistical mechanics. Thermodynamics deals with the flow of energy and heat in matter in bulk; its principles constrain all physical systems and its subject matter is regarded as a prerequisite for the study of statistical mechanics, which describes much the same territory in a more detailed, molecular fashion. A rather deep understanding of chemistry will help understand nanotechnology, focusing on its structural, molecular aspects. Biology is the leading science in the study of existing molecular machines. Biochemistry is the key here: enzyme mechanisms gives us insight for examples of what many nanomachines will need to do; the folding of proteins and the self-assembly of protein systems provide examples of how complex first-generation molecular machines may be made. Although nanotechnologist will be mostly done use science, nanotechnology is essentially a branch of engineering. The nano scale systems will be still be systems, and so the principles of systems engineering apply. Many nanosystems will be mechanical, and so the principles of mechanical engineering apply. Studies in solid mechanics, system dynamics, mechanisms, and control theory all are relevant to nanotechnology. And to work with at such small scales, sometimes even atom by atom assembling, a researcher needs the right equipment. Right now the main ones are scanning probe microscopes - the scanning tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope. So learning how to do a lot of lab research will be essential.
First there was Feynman in 1959 in a classical talk said “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom”. Eric Drexler with his 1985 book “Engines of Creation” inspired many, to go into the science fields and become part of this new field. He is also the founder of the Foresight Institute. Here is the mission statement found at his web site, www.foresight.com: “Foresight Institute's goal is to guide emerging technologies to improve the human condition. Foresight focuses its efforts upon nanotechnology, the coming ability to build materials and products with atomic precision, and upon systems that will enhance knowledge exchange and critical discussion, thus improving public and private policy decisions.” Robert Freitas is the author of the reference set “Nanomedicine” and is considered the foremost expert on the application of nanotech to medicine. Ralph Merkle is an author of many papers on nanotechnology and founder of the Nanotechnology group at Xerox PARC.
The field of nanotechnology is here now but the long term goals of it is still uncertain. Many scientists have their own views on what nanotechnology is and how we should approach it. But no matter what we do the next several years will be very interesting with the possibilities that could come out of the research in this field of unusual mix of disciplines that makes of nanotechnology.