Nanotech’s Troubled Past
People have used nanomaterials for centuries. Medieval window makers mixed gold nanoparticles in a solution to make red pigment without knowing that they were working with nanotechnology.
It was not until 1974 that Norio Taniguchi, a professor at Tokyo’s University of Science, coined the term in a research paper called “On the Basic Concept of ‘Nano-Technology.’” He derived the noun from the Greek word for dwarf and used it to describe production technology that operated on materials of one nanometer in length—about the size of 10 atoms. Today, the word is used to describe manufactured materials between one nanometer and 100 nanometers, according to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a U.S. federal research body.
Even during the 1990s, most scientists working in the field would have described what they were doing as atomic, or molecular, engineering. But two very conflicting visions arose that clashed in 2003 during congressional hearings on the future funding of nanotechnologies.
The dispute began in the 1980s after MIT-based space scientist and futurist K. Eric Drexler speculated that scientists could program basic materials to “grow” into any type of object—from food to space ships. Nanotechnology would develop using techniques derived from genetic engineering, he said. In his cult-classic Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, Drexler detailed how the new science would solve the world’s resource shortages by constructing objects out of dirt. Not only that, those nano-machines would be able to reproduce like living organisms. But there were high risks. These “self-replicating” nanobots could get out of control and swallow the world in a wave of unstoppable “grey-goo.”
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Back in the research labs, scientists across the world were working on smaller and smaller discoveries—aided in part by massive advances in atomic microscopy. Richard Smalley’s team at Rice University in Houston, for example, accidentally stumbled across a material that would become one of the essential building blocks of nanotechnology: the Buckminsterfullerene, or Bucky ball. The football-shaped carbon cage had exactly 60 atoms. Rice’s scientists found that they could build structures with it and manufacture it in various shapes.
President George W. Bush’s 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act had a $3.7 billion budget to spend on research funding, but to do so, it had to decide between these two visions.
Drexler and Smalley had been slogging it out in public through a series of open letters in various science publications since 2001. In a letter dated December 1, 2003, and published in the technical journal Chemical and Engineering News, Smalley made his position clear: Nanotechnology by molecular assembly was impossible. “Chemistry of the complexity, richness and precision needed to come anywhere close to making a molecular assembler—let alone a self-replicating assembler—cannot be done simply by mushing two molecular objects together,” he wrote.
Not content to stick to the science alone, Smalley turned the rhetoric up to full volume. “You and people around you have scared our children,” he wrote. “I don’t expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.”
In this charged atmosphere, Congress decided to play safe. It allotted the whole budget to “advanced chemistry.”
Even though most subsequent developments in nanotechnology have been aligned to Smalley’s science of materials, Drexler’s influence persists, says Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the UK’s University of Nottingham. “At the core of Drexler’s vision is the idea that we can do computer-controlled, single-atom chemistry,” said Moriarty, “and that is happening. But scientists are not doing nano in the way that Drexler envisaged.”
But Drexler continues to enjoy a “big cultural footprint,” said Moriarty, even among scientists. “I still find Engines of Creation inspiring,” he said. “What is more exciting: space travel and self-replicating machines or developing stain-free pans?”