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Problems in the land of the nano

Will the field of nanotechnology be able to grow in the shadow of pessimism on the one hand and hype on the other?

Avi Blizovsky

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Humanity, get on your feet, was written in giant letters on a billboard advertising Prey, the latest book by Jurassic Park creator Michael Creighton. The terrible monsters that threaten humanity are not giant dinosaurs but tiny nano-robots that can invade and take control of the human body. Nanorobots are machines with moving parts smaller than 100 nanometers (billionths of a meter). The movie is of course on the horizon. And to add to the fear of the nano, the chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy, is about to publish a book detailing his views against the field of nanotechnology. In an article on Wired, two years ago Joy called for a temporary pause in nanotechnology research. This is what an article published in the British magazine Economist claims.

These things cause scientists to worry, and not without reason. Last summer, a report by a group of environmentalists from Canada called for a halt to the field of nanotechnology. The group called for a boycott of manufacturers of nanomaterials until their environmental implications are clarified. This group is also known for its successful campaign against biotechnology and in particular against genetically modified agricultural products. Because of this, they fear that the embryonic technology in the nano field could be harmed.
One study, which is still ongoing, is trying to gauge the health risks of nanotubes. Meanwhile carbon-based spherical molecules are the preferred building blocks of nanotechnology. The research carried out at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston finds in the initial findings that there is cause for concern. However, they have since moderated their position and said that most applications do not carry any risk.

According to the economist, on the other side of the spectrum are the nano-siders who develop high expectations for the economic benefit of the field. According to their estimation, within ten years the amount will reach a trillion dollars. The lack of a clear definition of technology prevents reaching an agreement. A core definition of nanotechnology would be to limit the field to machines that have functional parts on a scale of less than a hundred nanometers. Today, there are very few developments that meet the definition. Thus the proponents support a definition that covers everything that is on the nanometer scale.
The irony in nanotechnology is the length of time it will take to fulfill the expectations of both the optimists and the pessimists. The question is when the development will be and where the industry will go.
In a report in the journal Science about two weeks ago (end of November 2002), Don Eagler and his fellow researchers at IBM's research laboratories in Elmden in Silicon Valley wrote that they are building logic gates on a molecular scale. This is the most basic element of the computing world. This is the assimilation of carbon monoxide molecules on a surface made of copper using a tunneling microscope. By arranging the molecules in a zig-zag pattern, and pushing one molecule at a time, they produce a molecular array that looks like a stack of dominoes. Arranging a few rows side by side, the team can build basic computerized components.
Dr. Eagler's waterfall is not dangerous to health, but it is also not worth an investment at this stage. Although it is much smaller than any other computerized gate, the gate takes 5 times as long to open or close - an extremely slow pace. It should also be kept in a vacuum and at an extremely low temperature. Dr. Eagler is the one who managed 12 years ago to arrange some Zenon atoms to create the IBM logo.

In many technologies it is customary to overestimate what will happen in five years and to underestimate what will happen in 50 years. Dr. Eagler and others are optimists, but nanotechnologists must hope that this rule of thumb will also apply to the field of nanotechnology. However, there is still a huge technological gap between molecular waves and fully functional nanorobots.

For the full article in The Economist
Nanotechnology expert

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