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Biology 103
2000 First Web Report
On Serendip

Nanotechnology: The Smaller the Better

Debbie Plotnick

Nanotechnology is a very hot topic. Major articles about it regularly appear in the popular press. And in January of 2000 President Clinton announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) (1). However, the concept that it is possible to construct things that are small enough to be measured in nanometers (one billionth of a meter) is not a new one. This paper (the first in a series of related papers) will explore some of the ways in which scientific and technological perceptions of "small" have changed. It will also look at some of the possible implications for humans, and it will discuss some of the concrete ways in which theoretical concepts have moved closer to probabilities than possibilities.

The idea of atom-by-atom construction was first put forth, in a scientific manner, over 40 years ago by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988). In a speech given in December of 1959 entitled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," Feynman lauded the "...staggeringly small world that is below" (2). He challenged his fellow scientists to find ways by which to create manufacturing, storage, and retrieval systems that are as efficient as DNA and to contain such systems in a submicroscopic, self-contained unit the size of a cell. Feynman even offered an economic incentive to facilitate matters, several $1,000 prizes. Today prizes in Feynman's honor are awarded annually and biannually to scientists and students who think small. There are prizes for individuals and teams in theoretical and experimental categories and for achievements in nanotechnology (3).

Since Feynman's speech, things have been shrinking steadily. In the days when Feynman was a child, things were manufactured on the scale of one meter, which is approximately person size (4). At the time he gave his famous talk, technological accomplishments included vacuum tubes, which are measured on in millimeters (5). Currently, our lives are full of things that are built on a scale one thousand times smaller. Micrometers are the scale upon which today's computer components are measured (6). A thousand times smaller yet is "the scale where atoms become tangible objects" (7). This is the goal of nanotechnology, where the building of nanomachines will be realized.

The National Technology Initiative of the year 2000, which proposes funding $270 million worth of research, outlines goals that sound remarkably like an updated version of Feynman's forty-year-old speech. Using today's scientific jargon, the NNI proposes funding improved computers, bottom-up manufacturing of strong, lightweight, materials constructed out of inexhaustible resources, and nanoengineered, molecular sized medical cures (1). Bottom-up is the current technical term for building things the way in which biological systems do, "...at the molecular level, and in three dimensions" (8). Among other things, the NNI proclaims the government's intention to fund the development of technology that will allow the "shrinking the entire contents of the Library of Congress in a device the size of a sugar cube" (1). Forty years prior to the NNI, Feynman declared that it was entirely possible to put the "Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin" (2). Attaining the ability to compact vast amounts of information into a small area surely will revolutionize the dissemination of knowledge and have a profound impact upon industry. However, the potential effects of these compacting technologies upon biological systems have heretofore only been fully explored in the domain of science fiction.

I couldn't help but wonder if the story that became the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage had been inspired by Feynman's speech. In "Plenty of Room" Feynman mentioned that a friend suggested "although it is a very wild idea, it would be interesting in surgery if you could swallow the surgeon" (2). Perhaps the stated objective of the NNI to employ nanoengineered gene therapies, cancer detectors and drug delivery systems," may sound more creditable than swallowing your doctor. But put forth an equally serious manner, as the NNI, was Feynman's proposal that "... small machines might be permanently incorporated in the body to assist some inadequately-functioning organ" (2). And forty-plus years ago he offered a method by which to manufacture "such a tiny mechanism."

Feynman proposed first manufacturing a full-scale precision "master-slave hand" machine. The next step would be to use this machine to make a one-quarter sized model itself. Next, he suggested, using the smaller replica of the original machine, make tools that were small enough to make a replication of the "hands" that would again be reduced to one-quarter the size of its predecessor. He hypothesis that by continuing this shrinking process it would eventually be possible to reach the level where individual atoms could be arranged. Feynman asserted that everything he envisioned was indeed "possible according to the laws of physics" (2).

Of course, Feynman did recognize that there were some technological impediments, and that he predicted that they would eventually be overcome, such as the need for more powerful microscopes. The scanning tunneling microscope (STM) has proved to be the enabling technology that has provided the means by which to visualize and manipulate on at the atomic level. The STM uses electrical vibrations to move a needle-tipped device and to position it with near atomic precision (9). Dr. Eric Drexler, who as graduate student in the early 80's founded the M.I.T. Nanotechnology Study Group and now serves as Chairman of the Foresight Institute (a nonprofit educational organization founded to help prepare for advanced technologies), is considered to be the leading expert in the field of nanotechnology (10). In the mid 1990's Drexler designed not a master-slave hand system but a "robot arm," based on the principles of the STM. This robot arm was constructed of only about one million atoms.

Bill Spense, the publisher of Nanotechnology Times explains, "many scientists refer to biology as "wet nanotechnology" and he suggests that Drexler's version is "dry nanotechnology" (11). Drexler unabashedly admits that his construction model for nanomachines (which he calls assemblers) is the way in which cells use proteins as building materials. In an in an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 1981, Drexler outlined some of his ideas, directly based on existing biological designs, for engineering molecular components by using synthesized protein combinations. His proposals include designing molecular sized parts, such as struts, beams and casings that are based on nature's design of microtubules, cellulose and mineral structures. Another example he offered was to design the pumps, which would be required to move fluids, to operate as do flagella and membrane proteins (12).

In his 1986 Book Engines of Creation , Drexler explained that the method by which to make the nano-sized assemblers self-replicating is to create a chain-reaction. And he explained that nature, once again, has provided the biological example, and that human technology has developed the mechanism, which will make this type of chain-reaction possible. Computer code behaves much like DNA (nature's protein coding system). Therefore, computer code is very good at making copies of itself. And once a properly programmed machine is constructed, and is inside of a biological system, it will have the ability to replicate in the same manner as bacteria and viruses (13). Of course, Drexler and others do foresee potential problems, which will be addressed in the next paper.

However, the scientific establishment no longer scoffs at the idea that the "nano-revolution" may be an example of "singularity." This is a term, familiar to science fiction readers, that refers to a radical and revolutionary, technological change that can completely alter the existing way of life in a society. In 1999 Dr. Rick Smalley, of Rice University who works on developing carbon nanotubes, testified before the US House Science Committee about some of the ways nanotechnology will directly impact our lives in the foreseeable future. Dr. Smalley told the Congress members to expect the development of "nano-surgical approaches, and implantable drug synthesis and delivery systems, intracellular sensors and rejection-resistant artificial organs." Dr. Smalley stopped short of Drexler pronouncement: "...people will grow healthier as they grow older, improving like wine instead of spoiling like milk" (13). However, Smalley did claim that soon nanotechnology would allow for "the detection of emerging disease in the living body, and will ultimately shift the focus of patient care from disease treatment to early detection and/or prevention (14).

There have also been several economic indicators (besides the NNI) regarding the acceptance of the inevitability of nanomachines. In 1992 Drexler's textbook Nanosystems: molecular machinery, manufacturing, and computation (15) was named the "Outstanding Computer Science Book," by the Association of American Publishers. And since the late 90's there have been a number of nanotechnology start-up companies, which in turn has created interest by stock market investors (16).

WWW Sources

1) White House Press Release on National Nanotechnology Initiative

2) Transcript of Richard Feynman's classic talk

3) Nanotechnology Prizes and Awards

4)5) History of technology and scale: one-millimeter scale

6) History of technology and scale: one-micrometer scale

7) History of technology and scale: nanometer scale,

8) Molecular Engineering

9)Foresight Institute

10) Biographical Info: K. Eric Drexler

11) Building with atoms: A primer from EE Times.com.

12) Protein design as a pathway to molecular manufacturing.

13) Web version of Engines of Creation.

14) Written Statement of Dr. Rick Smalley before the House Science Committee.

15) Nanosystems: molecular machinery, manufacturing, and computation.

16) Stocks and Nanotechnology




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