Nanotech: More science than fiction

Tiny robots tinkering on a microscopic scale, killing cancers or eradicating pollution? Major tech companies, government and investors are betting big bucks that it will happen.
Written by Tiffany Kary, Contributor
Nanotechnology was once the stuff of science-fiction fantasy: Tiny robots tinkering on a microscopic scale, killing cancers or eradicating pollution.

Today, spurred by research and investment, the science of building almost unfathomably small things is maturing with the help of a growing number of devotees in the technology industry and on Wall Street.

Technology leaders such as IBM, Intel and Hewlett-Packard--as well as start-ups and the U.S. government--are spending big bucks to make the science of nanotechnology commercially viable. They're building a world in which the technology will be used for memory chips, mini-computers, cancer treatments and even military applications.

At the simplest level, nanotechnology is the manipulation of single atoms and molecules to create objects that can be smaller than 100 nanometers. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, which is about a hundred-thousandth of the diameter of a human hair, or 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom.

But nanotechnology is much more complex than just stacking carbon atoms into diamonds. In this infinitesimal realm, materials are subject to the peculiar laws of quantum mechanics, in which electrons are blurs of probability. And the technology, with its blend of complex organic molecules, physical principles and chemical engineering, will force previously unrelated disciplines to work together, analysts say.

"Nanotech, biotech and infotech will converge," said Steve Jurvetson, a founder of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which is investing in nanotechnology companies. "You won't think about installing Microsoft Office anymore. You'll think about growing software."

The line is blurring in several ways. Scientists are learning to imitate biological patterns; biological entities are being used in technology products; and in the more distant future, nanomachines may be circulating through our bloodstreams, attacking tumors and dispersing medicine.

The revolution won't happen overnight, and even nanotechnology's biggest supporters acknowledge that the field could become the next craze--think dot-coms--in which hype outruns real application and business sense. Even Jurvetson allows that the "business path to nanotech is also rife with pitfalls."

Carbon nanotube: One of the most important materials of nanotechnology, a nanotube is a kind of molecule made of a lattice of carbon atoms. The cylindrical structure not only is light and strong, but also has superconducting properties that let it transmit electricity with no energy loss.

Gray goo: The substance that could result if nanobots began replicating uncontrollably. This is a common disaster scenario imagined by those fearful of the robots' self-replication.

Nanobot: A hypothetical robot of microscopic proportions, built with nanotechnology. Such robots could assemble molecules one by one and are postulated to need self-replicating capabilities, as thousands of nanobots would be required to make anything on a size humans could use.

Nanometer: A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, which is about a hundred-thousandth of the diameter of a human hair, or 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Anything smaller than 100 nanometers is considered to be nanoscale.

Nanotechnology: Sometimes called molecular manufacturing, it generally means building devices out of individual atoms and molecules. The technology is only in its nascent stages.

Quantum computing: A hypothetical method of computing that uses the unique properties of quantum physics to solve problems. Nanotechnology could make quantum computing possible.

Scanning probe microscopes: Among the most important tools of nanotechnology, these enabled IBM to manipulate individual atoms for the first time. There are two kinds: the scanning tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope.

Nevertheless, recent developments indicate that the science is progressing well beyond the " white paper" stage. For starters, the government, tech titans and venture capitalists are pouring money into the field, producing breakthroughs that have enabled several companies to make nanotechnology product announcements.

These prospects have grabbed VCs' attention. The International Business Forum on Feb. 11 is hosting a conference on nanotechnology investing in Palm Springs, Calif. The gathering will feature venture capitalists such as Jurvetson and experts including Meyya Meyyappan, director of the NASA Ames Center for Nanotechnology. There will be another nanotech investor conference in New York this August.

VCs and Wall Street strategists are among the biggest cheerleaders for nanotech, but it seems to be getting support from others as well:

  President George Bush this month submitted a $2.13 trillion budget to the U.S. Congress, and though it featured plenty of cuts, it also proposed a 17 percent boost in nanotechnology research. If Congress approves the budget, the funding of the multi-agency National Nanotech Initiative will jump to $679 million. In his budget, Bush argues, "the convergence of nanotechnology with information technology, biology and social sciences will reinvigorate discoveries and innovation in many areas of the economy."

  The Nobel Prize for physics in 2001 was awarded to a team of scientists that discovered a new state of matter, an ultra-cold gas that will allow for the high-precision measurement required by nanotechnology.

  In corporate developments, HP and University of California scientists on Jan. 23 announced a patent for a process to build computers that fit in an area smaller than the head of a pin. In December, Applied Materials announced new tools to assist in making nanoscale computer chips.

"The technology is just starting to filter down from the universities into the commercial world," said Greg Schmergel, CEO of Nantero, a Woburn, Mass.-based start-up using nanotechnology to create a high-density memory chip.

Despite the recent flurry of activity, the nanotech race is not a sprint; it's a marathon, with some applications taking a decade to incubate. The National Science Foundation forecasts that the market for nanotechnology products and services will reach $1 trillion by 2015. The U.S. government has invested about $1 billion in nanotech in the past two years, and VC contributions are expected to reach that level in 2002, according to research by Lux Capital, a VC company devoted to nanotech.

Bellwethers: Innovate or die?
In the nanotechnology race, IBM, Intel and HP are the front-runners. Of the three, IBM seems to be furthest ahead.

"HP has had limited success with its quantum science research team, and Intel has been expending most of its efforts trying to sustain its lead in the chip business," said Steven Milunovich, a Merrill Lynch analyst.

"IBM is going after nanotech on multiple levels," he said, adding that the company's Millipede technology and carbon nanotubes are "the highest-profile items" being developed.

The Millipede technology will be able to store 40 times more information in a given area than current hard drives. A nanotube is a kind of molecule made of a lattice of carbon atoms wrapped into a cylindrical structure that not only is light and strong, but also has superconducting properties that let it transmit electricity with no energy loss.

IBM has been a pioneer in nanotechnology. In 1989, Big Blue was the first to manipulate individual atoms, using an atomic force microscope, dragging a few xenon atoms across a nickel-crystal surface. All IBM did with the technology was spell the company's name, but it was a start.

In the next two to three years, IBM plans to start creating commercial products that use the Millipede technology.

Christopher Murray, manager of nanoscale science at IBM Research who works in the IBM T.J. Watson Research Lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., said the company is focusing its research on carbon nanotubes as well as magnetic tunnel junctions, which may one day replace current storage cells in DRAM (dynamic RAM) memory chips.

Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner of Lux Capital, speculates that IBM is devoting about 50 percent of its long-term research and development spending to nanotech, though figures are hard to come by, as companies like to keep such competitive information under wraps.

Wolfe said IBM's progress is promising. "Millipede technology is disruptive; it's heading a shift to thermomechanical storage," said Wolfe, who added that IBM can always license its technology to others if it doesn't develop its own nanotech products.

According to John Roy, a Merrill Lynch technology strategist, IBM's Millipede and Intel's 90-nanometer chips will be among the first products to hit the tech sector, probably in the next two years. IBM's carbon nanotube products are further out, by about three to five years.

Rob Willoner, technical analyst with Intel's technology and manufacturing group, said the company has produced transistors with a "gate length" of 60 nanometers and plans to cut size further. (Gate length is a key measurement of the size of a microchip's electronic circuitry.)

"We're expecting transistors of (15 nanometers) to come into production in the second half of the decade," Willoner said. "Intel is a high-volume manufacturer; the focus is on products for the next five to six years."

He said nanotechnology will put faster and smaller transistors on chips. That will enable chips to handle more power-intensive applications such as real-time voice and face recognition. "It basically enables the continuance of Moore's Law," he said. Moore's Law states that the number of transistors a chip can hold will double every 18 to 24 months, as transistor size shrinks.

As for HP, the company and its partners in academia are targeting molecular computing. Its foundation is based on complex molecules that can be flipped back and forth between two states by electricity.

Initial uses--perhaps in the next five years--will be for memory that can store digital information in the form of ones and zeros. But HP also believes the molecules that can switch between two states will work for processing that information the way today's CPUs do, said Phil Keukes, a nanotechnology computer architect at HP Labs.

"We do have a strategy for logic. It's not perfect, but to completely replace the integrated circuit, you're going to need something like that," Keukes said.

HP also is working on the difficult problem of manufacturing molecular computing systems--a key hurdle in making lab ideas profitable--and connecting them to the larger-scale world with tiny wires. HP has created a way to produce wires that not only are 2 nanometers thick--about six atoms--but that are regularly spaced about 9 nanometers apart.

The technology uses chemical processes rather than methods such as electron force microscopes that can only push a few atoms around at a time.

HP also is working on technology that will adjust to the inevitable errors that these new tiny chips will have. "We're going to get so many wires that we can afford defects," Keukes said, but software will be needed to diagnose exactly where the errors are.

Not just the big boys
Although tech giants are likely to produce some of the first nanotech tools, start-ups are also expected to push the envelope.

Looking for details?
For more information on nanotechnology, visit these Web sites.

Nonprofit organizations:
  Beckman Institute
  The Center for NanoSpace Technologies
  Foresight Institute
  Institute for Molecular Manufacturing
  Institute of Nanotechnology
  Michigan Molecular Institute
  NanoBusiness Alliance

Public companies:
  Altair Technologies
  Nanophase Technologies

Source: CMP Cientifica
Nantero--founded a year ago by three graduates of Harvard, two with chemistry Ph.D.s--received so much attention it has had to turn down venture capital.

The company got $6 million in venture capital in October, and since then, VCs have been beating down its door. "Once people understood what we do, now we've been approached by about 12 VC firms, all of whom we've told, 'We're not taking any more money,'" said Schmergel, Nantero's CEO.

Nantero is working on memory chips based on organic substances. It plans to have a commercial prototype in the next one or two years, Schmergel said. The technology, called NRAM (nonvolatile RAM), will provide a universal memory chip that can replace DRAM, SRAM (static RAM), flash memory and hard disk storage--an aggregate market that the company estimates is worth about $100 billion in revenue a year.

Nantero already has one patent and has applied for several others. "We just can't have that many competitors; it would take a decade or two before that changes," Schmergel said. "It takes years and years of training to catch up in this kind of technology."

Other start-ups are also hot on the trail. According to Merrill Lynch, start-ups to watch include Coatue, Molecular Electronics, Nanosphere, ZettaCore and Zyvex.

Schmergel, who has accepted money from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Stata Venture Partners and Harris & Harris Group, said a lot of VCs are trying to jump on the nanotech bandwagon.

The downside is that bandwagons tip over, especially when technology can't keep up with expectations.

Steve Crosby, managing editor of Small Times, which tracks the nanotechnology industry, said excessive hype may be the biggest thorn in the industry's side. The atmosphere at a recent Harvard Business School conference on nanotechnology was evidence of this, according to Crosby.

"There was a feeling among this small group of people that track the industry that all the hype about the potential is probably true--it really is the next big thing," Crosby said. "The only part anyone was cautious about is putting a timetable on things."

Attack of the killer goo
"Nanobots," or nanotechnology robots that assemble molecules one by one, sound like the stuff of sci-fi movies. But while these minuscule robots are hypothetical, most scientists believe there will be some form of "molecular assembler" within the next 20 years, and that the device will serve a concrete purpose.

Eric K. Drexler's 1986 book "Engines of Creation" described nanobots as something that would overcome the "fat fingers" problem by allowing people to manipulate matter on the nanoscale. Normal instruments are too large to manipulate matter on such a small scale; even in chemistry, most reactions involve at least 10 atoms. Nanoscale movements involve the manipulation of single atoms.

Therefore, scientists need nanoscale devices to build nanoscale objects. Though that problem has been partly overcome with the creation of some innovative new tools, a major problem persists: With such small assembly, to make something big enough for humans to use, it would require thousands of nanobots making thousands of nanoscale manipulations over thousands of years.

That problem can be solved by creating replicators--nanobots that build other nanobots--to speed up the process, nanotech enthusiasts say. But the idea of replicators makes some people uneasy.

Nanotechnology is seen by some as the first step on what could be a slippery slope into an apocalyptic pit of "gray goo." The term was popularized in an article that appeared in Wired magazine written by Bill Joy, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. It is used by nanotech cognoscenti to describe what they believe would result from the creation of self-assembling replicators.

Joy and others have cautioned that the self-replicating miniature robots, though invisible to the human eye, could result in a kind of gray goo if their multiplication ever got out of control. Armies of "blue goo," or destructive nanomachines, have even been proposed as a law enforcement measure.

Wolfe said he has seen plenty of business proposals based on such ideas, but he considers them implausible.

"It's utter nonsense--thoughts that you can change the economy because you can manufacture things instantaneously at your desk by just hitting a button," Wolfe said.

Of course, not everyone considers it ridiculous--a sign of the diversity in the nanotech community.

Wolfe divides nanotech mavens into two categories. "There is a scale that moves from left to right," he said. "There are the 'cosa nostra,' or the 'mental enthusiasts'--like (Ray) Kurzweil--the extropians and the transhumanists," and then there are the down-to-earth folks, trying to "de-nanobot" the field.

On the more far-out side, one business proposal Wolfe recently saw involved cryogenically freezing the deceased and bringing them back with nanobots in the future.

As far as Wolfe is concerned, any technology based on the "Drexlerian vision of nanotech"--that is, the self-replicating assembler--should be put in its place.

These far-out ideas should "promote ethical debates and get people involved," but "investors should not be looking at that type of thing," he said.

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

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