A Brief History of Nanotechnology
The foundations of nanotechnology have emerged over many
decades of research in many different fields. Computer circuits have been
getting smaller. Chemicals have been getting more complex. Biochemists have
learned more about how to study and control the molecular basis of organisms.
Mechanical engineering has been getting more precise.
In 1959, the great physicist Richard Feynman suggested that it should be
possible to build machines small enough to manufacture objects with atomic
precision. His talk, "There's
Plenty of Room at the Bottom", is widely considered to be the foreshadowing
of nanotechnology. Among
other things, he predicted that information could be stored with amazing
The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the
possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom... I want to build a billion tiny
factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously.
— Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in physics
In the late 1970's,
Eric Drexler began to invent what would become
He quickly realized that molecular machines could control the chemical
manufacture of complex products, including additional manufacturing
systems—which would be a very powerful technology. Drexler published scientific
papers beginning in 1981. In 1986, he introduced the term "nanotechnology" in
Engines of Creation to describe this approach to manufacturing and some
of its consequences. (Subsequent search showed that Taniguchi had previously
used the word in Japan to describe precision micromachining.) In 1992, Drexler
a technical work outlining a way to manufacture extremely high-performance
machines out of molecular carbon lattice ("diamondoid"). Meanwhile, he was also
engaging in policy activism to raise awareness of the implications of the
technology; he founded the
Foresight Institute in 1986.
Engines of Creation created much excitement. The term "nanotechnology"
rapidly became popular, and almost immediately its meaning began to shift. By
1992, Drexler was using "molecular nanotechnology" or "molecular manufacturing"
to distinguish his manufacturing ideas from the simpler product-focused research
that was borrowing the word. This research, producing shorter-term results, came
to define the field for many observers, and has continued to claim the term
"nanotechnology". To avoid confusion, CRN refers to such research as "nanoscale
Federal funding for nanotechnology began under President
Clinton with the
National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Instead of funding molecular manufacturing, the NNI chose to
focus on nanoscale
technology, which it defined as anything with a size between 1 and 100
nanometers with novel properties. This broad definition encompassed cutting-edge
semiconductor research, several developing families of chemistry, and advances
Meanwhile, a brief mention in Engines of Creation of the dangers of
self-replicating systems was proving increasingly troublesome to the field of
molecular manufacturing. The idea arose that any molecular manufacturing system
would be only one "oops" away from eating the biosphere. The Wired
the Future Doesn't Need Us" by noted computer scientist Bill Joy publicized
this concern. Nanoscale technology researchers, fearing—perhaps with
justification—that "grey goo"
would threaten their funding, increased their efforts to distance their work
from molecular manufacturing. One of the easiest ways to do this was to claim
that molecular manufacturing was impossible and unscientific. These claims
gained force since molecular manufacturing research was (and remains) highly
technical, interdisciplinary, and largely theoretical.
The controversy continues. Some scientists continue to assert that molecular
manufacturing is impossible. Others note that opposition is based on the
widespread misrepresentation and misrepresentation of Drexler's work, and that
there is no research demonstrating the supposed unfeasibility of molecular
manufacturing theory. A
published debate between Drexler and chemist Richard Smalley in December
2003 illustrated the tone of the controversy, with Smalley accusing Drexler of "hav[ing]
scared our children" with "such monster[s] as the self-replicating mechanical
nanobot" and Drexler accusing Smalley of having "attempted to dismiss my work in
this field by misrepresenting it." The two did not communicate effectively. On
the technical side, Drexler mostly restated what he had been saying for years,
but Smalley made some interesting
scientific errors. A recent paper by Chris Phoenix and Eric Drexler, "Safe
Exponential Manufacturing", is an attempt to distance molecular
manufacturing from fears of runaway self-replication.
Jim Von Ehr says:
If molecular manufacturing is indeed feasible (and Feynman claimed it was, back in 1959), the step-function
capabilities provided by those tools will be profoundly more powerful than the
thermodynamic equilibrium self-assembly approach favored by our current NNP
[National Nanotechnology Program]. It
will be like a computer-controlled robotic machine shop making jets compared to
breeding faster and larger passenger-carrying eagles for air transport... The Radical vision is currently being
ignored as a 'crackpot theory', and while there is rhetoric on both sides, very
few people are seriously working to demonstrate it, and nobody is scientifically
challenging it. If something like this was to actually prove feasible, we could
be surprised by the rate of change in the short timeframe during which it would
The Tangled Web of Policy Weaving
a medical device that travels through the human body to seek out and destroy
small clusters of cancerous cells before they can spread. Or a box no larger
than a sugar cube that contains the entire contents of the Library of Congress.
Or materials much lighter than steel that possess ten times as much strength."
U.S. National Science Foundation
appears to be a can't-miss choice for government funding of basic research. They
could support scientists in learning about the properties of nanoscale
materials, and in discovering how to put that knowledge to use in creating new
technologies. They could support investigations into both short-term and
long-term risks. They
could be proactive in developing responsible policies.
Ah, if only things were
With much patting on the back, both houses of Congress passed
Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act" in December 2003 and
President Bush signed it into law.
"This historic initiative will ensure that America is a competitive leader in
the Nanotechnology Revolution," said Senator George Allen (R-VA).
"Nanotechnology is a 'bottom-up' approach much like building a sculpture
atom-by-atom and molecule-by-molecule instead of cutting it from a larger rock.
It holds great advances for every aspect of the human endeavor, from
agriculture, to health sciences, to energy, to material sciences and the
However, all is not as rosy as it seems.
It is true that nanotechnology can lead to great advances by building
atom-by-atom and molecule-by-molecule in a bottom-up approach. But that type of
nanotechnology is not supported by the Act that Congress passed. Instead, it
earmarks funding for more mundane nanoscale science and technology
research—important work, certainly, and arguably worth the money—but by itself
it will not create a Nanotechnology Revolution.
"When one looks at the next 100 years of human development and the growth of the
global economy, no vote taken by Congress in the past decade will have a greater
effect then today's overwhelming passage of the nanotechnology bill," said Mark
Modzelewski, former executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, an industry
Underneath all this hype and hope, however, there is uncertainty, confusion, and
contradiction. The inconsistencies in U.S. nanotech policy are troubling to
those who recognize the real meaning and significance of nanotechnology—there
are a lot of contradictions, and they're glaring and important, possibly even
Do Congress and the administration know what they are funding under the widely
misunderstood heading of "nanotechnology"? Do they realize the full implications
of their uncertainty and their contradictions?
A pamphlet published by the U.S. National Science and Technology Council (a
cabinet-level federal government council) talks of "shaping the world atom by
atom" with nanotechnology, leading to "unprecedented control over the
fundamental building blocks of all physical things." That is the conception of
nanotechnology that most people have come to accept in recent years, as the
field has grown and achieved public notice. But is that what the U.S. National
Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is funding? Not at all. In fact, NNI leaders
downplay such talk as science fiction. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when
federal officials can't agree on what they are doing.
ITEM: The kind of research that might lead to "building atom-by-atom and
molecule-by-molecule in a bottom-up approach" is known as molecular
manufacturing (MM). But instead of supporting that, the NNI keeps pushing for
biochemical nanotechnology (bio-nano). However, Nobel prize-winning chemist
Richard Smalley says, "Biology is wondrous in the vast diversity of what it
can build, but it can't make a crystal of silicon, or steel, or copper, or
aluminum, or titanium, or virtually any of the key materials on which modern
technology is built. Without such materials, how is [nanotechnology] ever going
to make a radio, or a laser, or an ultrafast memory, or virtually any other key
component of modern technological society that isn’t made of rock, wood, flesh
and bone?" Smalley is right. We won't be "shaping the world atom by atom" with
bio-nano. Only molecular manufacturing can do that. But the NNI does not support
MM research. Does Congress realize this?
ITEM: The recently passed Nanotechnology Act calls for a feasibility
study of "molecular self-assembly", a confusing term that reportedly refers to
bio-nano. But the capabilities of bio-nano are
a known fact. What is there to study? University of Tennessee professor
Glenn Reynolds says, "Given that self-assembling nanodevices have already
been demonstrated, [this] seems unlikely to accomplish much: It's like
performing a study to determine the feasibility of integrated circuit chips.
Been there, done that. [This] may be an early sign that federal officials aren't
really serious about developing what most people would consider to be true
House of Representatives version of the Nanotechnology Act called for a
study "on whether molecular manufacturing is technically feasible…and if found
to be feasible — (A) the estimated timeframe in which molecular manufacturing
may be possible on a commercial scale; and (B) recommendations for a research
agenda necessary to achieve this result." This is precisely the kind of study
that is urgently needed. But under pressure from a special interest group, language in the final version of the bill was
changed and distorted to focus on bio-nano and exclude
MM. Why? Whose interests are being protected? Certainly not the voters and
taxpayers. This policy, as it stands, is not going to deliver on the promise of
nanotechnology—not without molecular manufacturing.
ITEM: India's new President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam (who
is, literally, a rocket scientist) has
called for India to develop nanotechnology — including nanobots — because it
will revolutionize warfare. Kalam is an "eminent nuclear and missile scientist".
Previously he had called for nanotech to be developed for cheaper space access
and for health and food. But in a July 2004 speech to scientists at the Weapons
and Electronic Systems Engineering Establishment (WESEE), a naval research and
development outfit, President Kalam asserted that "this would revolutionize the
total concepts of future warfare" and reportedly "asked the country's scientists
to make a breakthrough." According to an
Indian news article, he is seeking "super strong, smart and intelligent
structures in the field of material science and this in turn could lead new
production of nano robots with new types of explosives and sensors for air, land
and space systems."
In conclusion, consider these words from a
2001 NATO report on emerging technologies: "Theoretical and computational
models indicate that molecular manufacturing systems are possible—that they do
not violate existing physical laws. These models also give us a feel for what a
molecular manufacturing system might look like. Today, scientists are devising
numerous tools and techniques that will be needed to transform nanotechnology
from computer models into reality. While most remain in the realm of theory,
there appears to be no fundamental barrier to their development."
Given all this, it is nearly inconceivable that U.S. policymakers would
deliberately turn away from supporting the study of molecular manufacturing.
Regrettably, it seems that they have.