The next big thing may be very, very small

By Matthew Fordahl AP Technology Writer
Monday September 10, 2001

Nanotechnology could change the world as we know it  

PALO ALTO – Like a spacecraft’s snapshots of another world, the images on R. Stanley Williams’ computer show stark landscapes where parallel ridges poke out of what appear to be roiling blue rivers. 

The distances on this barren terrain are measured in the width of atoms, not miles. The ridges – just six atoms wide – will be the wires of an infinitesimally small circuit of the future. 

In Williams’ basement office at Hewlett-Packard Co., and in other laboratories around the globe, nanotechnology researchers are pioneering ways of building a new world, atom by atom and molecule by molecule. 

Nanotech promises to open up a universe of possibilities, from computers that rival the brain in processing, communications and storage, to molecular motors, cellular machines and drugs that target specific cells. 

Scientists expect it will eventually lead to new materials that are stronger, lighter and cheaper to make. It’s expected to touch nearly every industry: power, biotech, computing, manufacturing. 

“If nanotechnology has the impact we think it might have, it may well cause social and industrial rearrangements not unlike the original Industrial Revolution,” said Richard W. Siegel, director of the Rensselaer Nanotechnology Center in Troy, N.Y. 

Nanoscience is the study of materials smaller than 100 nanometers – or 1/100th the width of a human hair strand. 

The precise manipulation of nature’s basic building blocks gives scientists ultimate control over matter. It can lead to unexpected properties, such as lightweight, breathable fabrics that stop bullets. 

Nanotechnology literally opens up a new world of discoveries. 

Though nanotechnology seems to be as hyped as the money-losing dot-coms, corporations, researchers and governments around the world say the long-term promise is too great to ignore. 

Last year, then-President Clinton kicked off the National Nanotechnology Initiative with a $422 million budget boost, a 56 percent increase in nanotechnology spending over 1999. That would increase to $519 million annually under President Bush’s proposed budget. 

Major companies such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM Corp. are committing resources. Scores of startup companies have emerged. 

Nanoengineered products can now be found on store shelves as industrial drill bits, sunscreens and paints. Drug companies are interested because nanoparticles are water soluble – and injectable into patients – even when their full-size equivalents are not. 

Nanoscience also is quickly becoming a common language among previously divergent disciplines, such as materials science, engineering and biology. Engineers studying molecular motors and fuel are closely studying similar mechanisms found in bacterial flagella. 

The high-tech industry may have the most to gain. 

“Nanotechnology is the very next logical step from what we’re doing right now in terms of microtechnology,” said Tom Weber, division director for materials research at the National Science Foundation. “It’s where we’ve got to go if we’re going to get to new products and devices.” 

In data storage, some work is already paying off. 

IBM is developing a disk drive that punches atomic-size indentations into plastic, giving the drive more than 40 times the density of current models. That could ultimately lead to cell phones with a gigabyte of storage space. 

Millipede, as the project is known, could be commercially available in as little as two years. 

But in the core of the high-tech industry – memory and logic circuits – nanotech is not expected to bear commercial fruit for another five to 10 years or more. 

The timing is critical. For more than 30 years, the performance of most high-tech devices has depended on the continued miniaturization of silicon transistors, tiny switches that turn on and off as well as amplify signals. 

But silicon has its limits, and they are expected to be reached within the next 10 to 15 years. 

Williams, a research fellow at HP Labs in Palo Alto, believes his team is on a path to breaking through those barriers. 

Using a stainless steel machine that resembles a diving bell, Williams and his colleagues at HP Lab’s Quantum Science Research division have built switches out of parts of molecules that can be made to swing open or shut. 

Instead of using the top-down approach of basically scratching features into silicon, they employ a bottom-up approach of building structures atom by atom. 

And the process occurs through carefully controlled chemical reactions, which would be much cheaper than the multibillion chip factories that now churn out the world’s memory and microprocessor chips. 

Researchers at IBM are working on another approach that would not require abandoning transistors altogether. 

Two carbon nanotubes – each only 10 atoms wide – have already been used to create a specific type of simple circuit. Researchers are working on running more complicated operations. 

“They’re the only thing in the world that right now has some potential of making a switch to process information that’s faster than the fastest silicon transistor,” said Tom Theis, IBM’s worldwide director of physical science research. 

There are many problems to overcome, including creating viable circuits, figuring out how to connect them to real-world electronics and developing software that works with the imperfections of organically grown wires. 

So far, the research teams at HP and IBM say they have encountered no show-stopping barriers that would prevent the eventual creation of nanoscale memory and logic chips. 

Still, few expect advances in nanoscale electronics to change the world overnight. 

Williams believes molecular computing will enter the marketplace much like the first transistors did in cheap radios. Molecular electronics, he said, could first appear in a toy or singing birthday card. 

Ultimately, computing power and memory will grow, even faster than the rate that silicon did. A small computer might have the same capacity as a human brain. It might, perhaps, even think or feel. 

“I’m not sure I’d want a wristwatch that’s smarter than I am,” says Williams. “But that’s what the physics tells us we should be able to do.” 

Some predict that the technology could lead to ways of restoring frozen people. More pessimistic writers warn that self-replicating, self-aware nanobots could one day squeeze out life on Earth. 

Most dismiss such fears as hype or physically impossible science fiction, but the entire field should not be dismissed, said Ralph Merkle, principal fellow at Zyvex Corp., a nanotech company. 

“Back in the 1940s, people called flight to the moon science fiction,” he said. “Well, we did it. When people say this looks like science fiction, you have to be careful to distinguish between things that will take a decade or two or three and things that are unfeasible and unlikely to occur.”