Nanotechnology sounds like science fiction. But the promise is real.
By David M. Ewalt
Close your eyes and think small. Think smaller than the head of a pin, smaller than the point of a pin. A red blood cell is a whole world. Think all the way down to one-billionth of a meter, a scale at which hydrogen and carbon atoms appear as large as baseballs.
Now imagine picking up those atoms and building a machine. A line of carbon makes a wire. Atoms of silver are teeth on a gear. A lattice of nickel and cadmium produces electricity. The finished product is a motor-or a pump, or a microprocessor, or an entire robot-literally millions of times smaller than any comparable device today.
The promise of nanotechnology is as large as its products are small. Like the Internet, artificial intelligence, and atomic energy in their heydays, nanotech has proponents in a lather about how it will fundamentally change the world. Some see supercomputers the size of pencil erasers that work 10 times faster than the fastest computers today. Adding a sinister twist, some warn that nanotech could spin out of control and inadvertently dismantle all life, atom by atom. But the dirty little secret of nanotech, if there is one, is that it's already here. The time to consider its implications is now.
Granted, you can't buy a computer for the end of your pencil yet. And artificial intelligence has proved by not yet living up to its earth-shaking promise that it takes a lot more than clever lab experiments and big ideas to revolutionize an industry. Yet companies already are making molecular materials that improve the effectiveness of products, proving that nanotech is more than science fiction. So far, the uses have mostly been inactive-such as coatings and additives-rather than molecular machines, which no one yet knows how to mass-produce. But nanotechnology's progress so far is encouraging. "The word is starting to show up in the profit column instead of the R&D column" of financial statements, says Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, a trade association.
The next big step most likely will be the use of nanotech in IT, where the largest companies are in hot pursuit of practical applications. "Almost all the scientists here would see themselves as having worked on the nanoscale for most of their careers," says Tom Theis, director of physical sciences at IBM Research. It was at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., that scientists reached one of nanotech's milestones. In 1989, using a scanning-tunneling microscope that he had built himself, researcher Don Eigler created the world's smallest logo: individual atoms of xenon that spelled "IBM." In doing so, Eigler demonstrated the feasibility of building atomic-level structures.
About the same time Eigler was practicing his nanopenmanship, French and German scientists were sandwiching several kinds of crystals into an ultrathin, magnetoresistive film whose electrical properties changed radically when exposed to a magnetic field. Today, the nanostructured material has become the industry standard on hard-drive heads, where its ultrasensitivity allows them to read very small changes in magnetic fields that represent packets of data moving by at high speeds.
One year ago, IBM scientists built a magnetic coating out of the element ruthenium. Applied to a hard-drive platter in a layer only three atoms thick, it will let disk drives store 100 Gbits of data per square inch by next year. Today, drives max out at 20 Gbits. Coatings of this "antiferromagnetically coupled media" work so well that IBM scientists have taken to referring to it as "pixie dust."
Perhaps more surprising is how widely different kinds of pixie dust are being used. NanoTex in Greensboro, N.C., makes fabrics woven through with nanomaterial that are used by Eddie Bauer and Lee Jeans so liquids roll off clothing more easily, making them stain resistant. Sunscreens containing a titanium-dioxide nanopowder made their debut last summer; the optical properties of materials change at that scale, so a lotion can reflect ultraviolet light without being visible on the skin. Medical-supply company Smith & Nephew plc in London produces bandages covered with silver nanocrystals that kill bacteria.
Nanotech might show up in your refrigerator or your car. Voridian Co. in Kingsport, Tenn., sells Imperm, a plastic imbued with nanoparticles of clay that are as hard as glass, less likely to shatter, and better at sealing in carbon dioxide to keep drinks fresh. That's what's let Miller Brewing Co. offer plastic beer bottles for the past two years. General Motors Corp. puts nanomaterials into the running boards of its Astro and Safari vans, making them stronger and lighter than other materials. Glass makers have begun marketing "self-cleaning" windows coated with dirt-repelling nanoparticles. And a Kodak printer that produces a brighter image using nanopigments was named the Digital Printing & Image Association's 2002 product of the year.
Now, it appears, the conditions are right for nanotech to grow, so to speak. A survey by the NanoBusiness Alliance finds that the industry already generates $45.5 billion a year in sales worldwide and could boom to $700 billion by 2008. Some observers believe the alliance may be inflating its numbers to increase hype, but a less partial study by the National Science Foundation predicts that the market for nanotechnology products and services will hit $1 trillion by 2015. But while investors and technologists debate dollar amounts, the most pressing question for business managers is a much more straightforward "When?"
"Most IT shops think two or three years ahead," says John Halamka, CIO of CareGroup Health System in Boston. "So nanotech isn't on the radar screens of most CIOs." Halamka figures that the practical applications of nanotech that CIOs will really be interested in are still years away. But smart technology executives need to keep on top of the developments, he says. "What I would do is start watching and recognizing that these are disruptive technologies that will revolutionize our business," he says.
Uncle Sam has become a big believer-and investor. President Bush's 2003 budget calls for increased spending for nanotech research, including a 17% boost in the National Nanotechnology Initiative, to $679 million. The initiative funds university research grants, and Congress is also considering creating public-private research partnerships. "The government is to thank for practically legitimizing nanotech," says Modzelewski of the NanoBusiness Alliance.
Private investors aren't nearly as bullish as Bush. Venture-capital firms have invested $296.5 million in nanotechnology since 1999, according to VentureOne and Ernst & Young. That's only slightly more than the amount raised by one telecom-equipment company, switchmaker Caspian Networks Inc., in that time. Few venture capitalists are excited about nanotechnology because few major companies are buying nanotech products, something VCs want to see before they invest, says Steve Bengston, managing director of emerging-company services at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Bengston estimates nine out of 10 VCs "think it's still too early to be spending on nanotechnology."
For the time being, research by the military, universities, and a handful of corporate labs-not by privately funded startups-will likely lead the way. In March, the Army Research Office said it would fund an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an effort to create equipment such as body armor that can change colors to blend into terrain. And at the Department of Energy, a prototype anthrax detector uses a tiny hot plate to vaporize airborne particles so microelectronic sensors can sniff the gases that waft off the plate and detect dangerous elements.
But university research has a way of turning into big business. Among those trying to cash in is Hongjie Dai, who left his native China to study physical chemistry at Columbia and Harvard and is now an assistant professor at Stanford University. Dai formed Molecular Nanosystems Inc. last year with $2 million in angel investment and the licenses from several patents he got on the university's behalf. The Palo Alto, Calif., company is working on commercial applications, including a nanosniffer, that it would build out of carbon nanotubes.
Carbon nanotubes are cited as one of the building blocks of future electronic components. These nanotubes usually are made of a sheet of graphite (itself a strong lattice of carbon molecules) rolled into a long, thin cylinder that looks like a tiny rolled-up sheet of chicken wire. Each intersection of the chicken wire consists of a single atom, so the whole tube is only one-billionth of a meter in diameter. Products made from nanotubes-such as chemical sensors or cheap, low-power displays for PDAs-are two to four years away, Molecular Nanosystems executives say.
Nanotubes draw so much excitement because they're strong and flexible, and they have electrical and mechanical properties that have wowed scientists since their discovery by Japanese researcher Sumio Iijima in 1991. They're also extremely sensitive to chemicals, changing their electrical conductivity when exposed to different gases. That's the principle behind Molecular's proposed sensing devices.
In the IT world, scientists are investigating ways to use nanotubes as semiconductors. Integrated circuits made from them could be 1,000 times smaller than today's components and operate at faster speeds. Another likely component of these tiny circuits are nanowires, which are similar to nanotubes. In February, University of California, Berkeley, chemist Peidong Yang successfully built "superlattice" nanowire, a single thread of material 2,000 times thinner than a human hair. Depending on its configuration, a single nanowire can control electrical current, emit light, heat or cool a device, or store information, says Larry Bock, president and CEO of Nanosys Inc., a company he co-founded with Yang. The tiny wires can serve as components for more complicated devices, potentially allowing engineers to build smaller and smaller electronic and optical hardware.
But one of the problems with this technology is quality manufacturing. No one has yet figured out how to build mass quantities of the uniform, high-quality nanotubes that would be needed to make the nanocircuitry required for advanced devices based on nanotechnology. That's probably at least a decade away, though manufacturers are promising that less-sophisticated products will be available in a year or two.
The computer industry needs nanotechnology because it foresees the end of one of the great money machines of the last century: Moore's Law. The ability to continually increase the amount of data that fits on a microchip provided the industry with escalating computing speed and power, which led to ever-more-powerful products-and a strong motive for customers to upgrade. At some point, though, that miniaturization process collides with the physical limits of silicon.
Researchers at Hewlett-Packard are trying to figure out what they can do with nanowires and switches once the white-coats figure out how to make them ready for real-world use. Phil Kuekes, a member of the Quantum Science Research lab at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, describes it as molecular electronics. "We believe it should be possible to re-invent the integrated circuit and extend Moore's Law for another few decades," he says.
But why stop there? Why not remake the computer itself? Last November, Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber published a paper in the journal Nature describing how he used nanowires to construct logic gates-simple switches that are the heart of all modern processors. The resulting nanocomputer had just 16 transistors and performed only basic addition, but it's a first step toward nanotech's most staggering application: the sci-fi promise of supercomputers that fit on the head of a pencil.
Back in the real world, there's more to reinventing an industry than just coming up with new products. People need to integrate new technologies into their businesses, and that will take time even once the products are built. "The problem with revolutionizing IT is that whatever you do, you either have to replace the whole system or you have to integrate whatever you have into this enormously complicated infrastructure that already exists," IBM's Theis says. "To make big changes in these long-established businesses takes some time."
It also requires winning over the skeptics-and addressing the risks. The risk that hovers most ominously over nanotechnology is the idea that, because of their tiny size, nanomaterials will enter and contaminate biological systems. The concerns range from cancer or genetic mutation to the risk that materials could get into groundwater and destroy entire ecosystems.
Most frightening of all is the theory laid out by Bill Joy, co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, that nanotechnology could destroy the world. If, as some theorists suggest, future nanoscale robots are able to self-replicate by plucking the atoms they need out of their environment, the robots could dismantle every physical construct. Joy, who first laid out the nightmare in Wired magazine two years ago, described a scenario in which those robots go out of control, eating up the world in a frenzy of replication until Earth becomes a planet-sized gob of "gray goo."
Paranoia, huffs IBM's Theis. And as for less-than-doomsday environmental worries, nanotech supporters counter that the technology will tip manufacturing on its head by producing far less waste. Theis points to the process used to make computer chips today: "What we do right now is refine a huge crystal of silicon, cut it into wafers, etch it with caustic chemicals, heat it up, and evaporate metals onto it." In contrast, nanofabricated chips would essentially be grown from the atom up, producing next to no waste, requiring no toxic chemicals, and using less electricity in the manufacturing process, Theis says.
Despite the risks and obstacles, nanotechnology will change business computing-and revolutionize some industries. How much, and when? David Swain, chief technology officer at Boeing Co., believes nanotech will ultimately revolutionize aviation safety, letting engineers build "superintelligent" planes, full of nanotech sensory devices that connect to a supercomputer. He doesn't know when we'll be riding in nanojets-probably 10 years, at least-but he's nurturing technology managers' interest in it today. "We want to stay close to it, encourage it, make sure that we have people talking to scientists around the world," Swain says. "Then when it's viable, our engineers can get a jump start."