Nano ideas

John Patrick leads a discussion on the future of nanotechnology at DEMOfall 2006.


John Patrick leads a discussion on the future of nanotechnology at DEMOfall 2006. He begins by explaining several dimensions of the smallness of nano--billionths of time, space.

Gian-luca Bona, IBM Almaden Research. Nanotechnology will affect storage in many ways. We're working toward having storage structures in a few nanometers space, but current technology is slow and that is where the focus of current efforts. Non-volatile memory with multiple millions of instructions per second will be needed to support the deployment of nano-powered PDAs. Today's state of the art, that is the Intel platform, is operating on the 90 nano-meter level with five, six or seven atomic layers on a chip, which is where we run into problems with errors because of interactions between those layers.

Novel storage devices will be self-assembling. The challenge is working with more materials. Silicon is not all that is involved anymore, today's semiconductors use up to 70 percent of the periodic table of the elements.

Patrcick asks about today's technology, do we have tools that can move atoms from one place to another.

Bona replies that it is not the kind of control that moves single atoms.

Patrick: Most of use relate to storage as a couple hundred Gigabyte hard drives and two Gigabyte USB dongles. Bona says we'll soon be storing Terabytes on USB devices, but what is really critical is that you will be able to retrieve data quickly. Access time will have to be improved to make these devices viable building blocks of practical applications. 

Gerald Hoegl,  Metacomb Nanostructures. Working on materials science. He is working to make the materials needed by nanotechnology profitable, that the materials are are not so expensive that they are unprofitable. Pulls a brick of cellular metal from his pocket-- "Metal 2.0" that is strong and can absorb impact energy in car bodies and even bullet-proof vests. "And this is still straightforward aluminum." Then he drops it into water and the block of metal floats.

John Patrick asks about a crash. Hoegl says if you hit a kid, this material can be customized to the use in the hood of the car so that that the metal crushes instead of the kid's head. We can save lives with this. This kind of cellular aluminum can be used to build load-bearing structures, such as a car door that combines crash protection because, a steel door it does not transfer crash energy into the car. But it also makes the car quieter and the body more stiff to improve performance. Overall, the entire car could be dramatically lighter. A single door could weight six to ten pounds less than steel.

Cellular aluminum is 80 percent lighter than steel in the same applications.

Wasiq Bakhari, Quantum Insight. In medicine, we're looking at novel therapies and drug delivery systems built on nanotechnology. For example, you can deliver drugs to the specific site in the body that need the drugs rather than flooding the body with drugs, as we do in current chemotherapy. Biology and nanotechnology are deeply related, since our bodies are already operating at the nano-level. Our cells are each an elegantly engineered machine. So, I think nanotechnology is that part of biology that intersects with physics and chemistry.

John Patrick: Asks about personalized medicine. (Though, economically, this is long way off -- Ed.)

Bakhari: I don't think that the Mercks of the world are going to be able to make personal medicinces, rather they'll be able to deliver a chemistry lab to the patient and manufacture the drugs on site or even in the body. Some of these types of products will be out in the next few years, with drugs following within five years. There are also problems of managing information to make personalized medicine possible--so all the rest of the tech discussed here are relevant.

Patrick asks Bona about spin-off and innovation opportunities, who says that storage work should impact what is done in the processor side of IBM's business because they are essentially the same things at the nano level. The industry is operating at the extremes of optics. By studying these polymeric structures, we create products that can be used in other industries. For instance, materials science in computing can also produce nanopores that can be used in medicine or desalination projects that bring water to desert areas. Biological applications. Solar cells, fuel cells--it's all about understanding how individual binding sites interact with others.

Patrick: So some of the biggest breakthroughs may be unexpected.

Bona: Absolutely, and we should not limit ourselves by closing our minds to these opportunities.

Hoegl: What we have is a basic technology that is leveraging nanotechnology. We can do the same thing [Metal 2.0 or cellular metal] can be applied to magnesium and even steel. So this opens a lot of new applications for materials.  When asked, he says his company could be public in five years, because the basic research is done. "Nano is not an industry in itself, it is applied in other industries" so there are a lot of paths that could be realized.

Patrick asks now about producing ethanol. Converting biomass is inefficient, Bokhari says, because we don't have yeasts that can break down the whole plant. Only one percent of the plant is actually used. Enzymes that make the rest of a plant useful as a fuel source are a huge area of investment. Any biomass with carbon and hydrogen atoms can be used to make ethanol. Today, ethanol economics are not very good, but this could be transformed by nano-level products in the next three to six years.

Patrick now turns to how to find people to work on this stuff. How do you find people and deal with the fact that no one company can do all this alone. Bona, 10 years ago it was all engineers and computer scientists, but today Almaden employs biologists, too. For example, carbon nanotubes are promising conductors, but they may need to be placed on a carbon chip using DNA, which requires biological expertise. It's very capital intensive and require huge teams. Some of these non-volatile memory device projects involve collaborations with flash manufacturers around the world, because if you look at the fabrication business today, a fab can cost $3 billion. At each step downard in size, you add more cost, so we have to team up with other companies to make progress and bring products to market.

Even within IBM, labs are being asked to collaborate in new ways to develop these technologies.

Patrick asks Hoegl about competitors. Hoegl says his is a $20 billion market, that there are competitors but does not name them. His processes are well protected, and there is little likelihood that others will be able to step in and do what his company does.

Question from the floor: What overlap is there between nanotech and volume holography. Bona says IBM has discontinued its volume holography efforts because there is a material problem that has not be solved. Some startups are looking promising, but IBM will wait. Tape still can hold a lot of data for up to 20 years, so there is an economic challenge. We weren't we could afford the investment in what might not have been a profitable breakthrough.

Another question: Lots of this reminds of Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity Is Near, and his concerns about bad uses of this technology. Is the United States ahead, and second question: what diseases will be cured first.

Bokhari, speaking broadly, says any disease caused by a virus or bacteria is a viable target for nano-level therapies. Consider the recent e.coli outbreak, which waits to achieve a critical mass of infection before attacking. If we can neutralize this bacteria before it reaches critical mass, we can neutralize it. HIV is the "smartest" virus and the therapies in that are are some of the most promising. Mentions eradicating AIDS in the near term, but we run out of time.