Editor’s note: Ed Crockett writes regularly about technology trends for Local Tech Wire. His column rotates on Monday with “Breaking Glass,” which will return next week.An ancient ancestor chipped away at a rock to make it conform to his specification, and the result was a weapon or tool. In effect, our forefather was manipulating atoms…trillions of them at a time…and changing the form of the rock to something useful.

Manipulating atoms was an art form 30,000 years ago, but today it is the stuff of science. Instead of manipulating trillions of atoms with the force of a sharp blow, scientists now manipulate singular atoms in the process of constructing functional nanoscale devices to do our bidding in the tiny realm of the atom.

With such devices in place, man will likely rule this nanoscale world; thus, a new era is dawning … one of unprecedented precision, strength, and economy … a new era that holds big change for the way we live.

The scope of nanotechnology is vast. It spans all the major areas of research…electronics, medicine, genetics, physics…and is very much the subject of research in all of them.

Defining nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is research and development in the ability to measure, manipulate and organize matter at the single-atom level. This level of precision is popularly being called the nanoscale. Working at the nanoscale is not just a new advance in technology; it is a quantum leap from where we have been, at the relatively gargantuan microscale.

The visions

The first wave of change came with the agriculture revolution, around 10,000 years ago. The second wave occurred around 300 years ago, when the industrial revolution evolved. Some say the third wave is the coming age of nanotechnology.

The impact…to our economy, to medicine, to electronics, to our world…is, some say, incalculable. Some perspectives:

  • IBM: Paul Horn, senior vice president of IBM Research, stated in 1999 his belief that “Besides entering [in] a “Knowledge Age,” we are at the threshold of significant discoveries that will return tremendous economic benefits and radically improve every aspect of our lives. Nanotechnology is arguably one the most promising of these areas, but one that will require long term research across many disciplines to achieve its full promise.”
  • Forbes: Forbes Vice President of Customer/Investor Relations, Liberta Abbondante, says of nanotechnology, “Gone forever will be the casting, milling, and welling of materials along with the greatest invention of the 20th Century…the silicon chip.”
  • Alvin Toffler: The author of Third Wave wrote: “Humanity faces — the deepest social upheaval and creative restructuring of all time. Without clearly realizing it, we are engaged in building a remarkable new civilization from the ground up.” Toffler may have been writing of the information age, but his description seems to work nicely with the new age of nanotechnology.

Two Critical Keys

The reality is that all this is just theory, for now. The fact is two critical keys are missing: a nanocomputer and a nanoassembler. The assembler is required to perform manipulations on atoms while the computer is required to assemble and operate the assembler, based on the computer’s own software instructions.

The nanocomputer is a supercomputer capable of operating in the nanoscale domain at very high speeds with minimal heat generation. In function, the nanocomputer differs little from today’s microprocessors but is a million times smaller and a billion times faster than any microprocessor yet designed. Once the nanocomputer exists, it becomes possible to create a nanoassembler, a device constructed at the atomic level, which can arrange atoms precisely into most any desired form.

Excitement today revolves around the facts that suggest components for these keys are rapidly being developed.

As the science of nanotechnology nudges ever closer to reality, it will surely draw the attention of those who don’t believe this technology should be pursued. Tampering with matter in such a way as to create new matter certainly has disturbing implications and is sure to be hotly debated in the future.


Nano Technology Magazine: www.nanozine.com/NANOMATS.HTM#super

IEEE: www.spectrum.ieee.org/INST/jun02/fnano.html

NSF Engineering Online: www.eng.nsf.gov/engnews/2001/01-05_Nanotech_and_Societal_Ch/01-05_nanotech_and_societal_ch.htm

Zyvex: www.zyvex.com/nano/

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