The Next Frontier
"Nanotechnology has given us the tools . . . to play with the ultimate toy box of nature-atoms and molecules. Everything is made from it. . . . The possibilities to create new things appear limitless."
-Horst Stormer, Nobel Laureate
On November 9, 1989, a new era dawned. The event that ushered in this era had nothing to do with the historic collapse of the Berlin Wall. Instead, the momentous event took place in the quiet confines of IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California.
Nearly fourteen years later, the date is still not accorded much significance. Future historians will, however, likely look back and use the November day to denote the official beginning of the Nanotechnology Age. For it was on that day that two IBM scientists, Don Eigler and Erhard Schweizer, purposely manipulated individual atoms to build a structure, a simple IBM logo. What made the logo so special was that it was created out of only thirty-five xenon atoms. For comparative purposes, the logo could fit 350 million times in an area the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
Eigler and Schweizer had broken the final barrier between humans and nature's most fundamental building block-the atom. And just as Wilbur and Orville Wright's short twelve-second flight was a precursor to landing on the moon, so too will Eigler and Schweizer's actions be precursors to tomorrow's fantastic journeys. Like the previous ages before it, the Nanotechnology Age began quietly. And just like the Stone, Bronze, Iron, and Silicon Ages, this new age will forever revolutionize the world. What will set the Nanotechnology Age apart will be the rate of change and the speed with which it will impact the world. Sixty-six years separated the events at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, from the Apollo moon landing, but significantly less time will likely separate that day in 1989 from self-repairing materials, computers a million times more powerful than those of today, and biocompatible replacements for body parts (all three of which-and more-are under development).
If these things sound farfetched, ask someone born in 1960 if he thought his great-grandfather, who had grown up around the turn of the twentieth century-when 25 percent of all people were employed in agriculture and the average life expectancy was forty-seven years-could have envisioned that one hundred years later less than 1 percent of the population would work on farms and the average life expectancy would increase thirty years to seventy-seven. Could his grandfather's generation-makers of ENIAC, the world's first computer (which cost $4.7 million when it was built in 1946 and occupied an entire floor of a building)-have imagined that fifty years later an electronic greeting card would carry a comparable amount of computing power, cost less than a dollar, and be discarded by its recipient after playing a rendition of "Happy Birthday"? Or could his mother, who learned of DNA in high school, believe that in less than thirty years the entire human genome would be mapped and that people would seriously be debating the cloning of humans?
Your challenge will far exceed the technological challenges that previous generations faced, for two reasons. One, nanotechnology will impact almost every segment of society, and two, it will arrive-and already is arriving-much more rapidly than previous scientific advances.
It has been said that the only constant is change itself. From a business perspective, that is certainly true. Of the Fortune 500 companies in 1993, fewer than half existed in 2002. The problem, which most people fail to grasp, is not that things will change. We all expect change. The problem, rather, is that the rate of change is not constant. Change is accelerating, and the technological developments are not moving linearly but exponentially. (The doubling of computing power every eighteen months, known as Moore's First Law, is one of the more commonly cited examples of such change.)
The situation is further complicated because seemingly separate and unrelated areas of science are now beginning to merge. Developments in one area of nanotechnology are fueling developments in another field, which in turn are contributing to developments in yet other fields. Consider the following: Material scientists are now developing new materials with enhanced electronic properties. These new materials will allow for the creation of faster computers. These faster computers will be used to generate more sophisticated computer simulation software, which in turn will be used to design even better materials. These new materials will then be turned around and used to build the next generation of ever-faster computers. The process thus continually repeats itself in an ever-shorter time frame. In addition to the creation of new materials, better software programs, and faster computers, these changes will also result in entirely new products, applications, and markets. Thus it is possible that the list of Fortune 500 companies a decade from now may be radically different from today's.
Over the next ten years, the fields of chemistry, physics, material sciences, biology, and computational
sciences will converge in a way that will define nano-
technology and impact almost every industry, including computers, semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, defense, health care, communications, transportation, energy, environmental sciences, entertainment, chemicals, and manufacturing. Previously distinct disciplines will also combine: medicine and engineering, law and science, art and physics, etc. This merging will result in developments that are not simply evolutionary; they will be revolutionary. You need to be ready for them.
WHAT IS NANOTECHNOLOGY?
Nanotechnology is, broadly speaking, the art and science of manipulating and rearranging individual atoms and molecules to create useful materials, devices, and systems.
The term nano (derived from the Greek nanos, meaning dwarf) refers to one-billionth of something. Thus one nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, which is approximately the width of ten hydrogen atoms. For visualization purposes, the width of the dot above the letter "i" in this sentence is approximately one million nanometers. If that doesn't work for you, consider that one nanometer is to an inch what one inch is to approximately 16,000 miles. Or if each character of the alphabet could be printed at a height of ten nanometers, the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (all 30,000 pages of dense print) could be replicated on the head of a common pin. Figure 1.1 gives some standard objects and their sizes in nanometers.
A key ingredient in understanding nanotechnology is realizing precisely what it is and what it isn't. When we refer to nanotech in this book, we are talking about research and technology development in the length scale of .1 nanometers to 100 nanometers to create unique structures, devices, and systems. In many instances the actual structures, devices, and systems will be much larger, but they will be classified as nanotechnology due to the fact that they will either be created at the nanoscale or nanotechnology will enable them to perform new and/or improved functions.
This broad definition encompasses two very important categories: nanomeasurement and nanomanipulation. The first, nanomeasurement, has largely been agreed by the scientific community to apply to only those things ranging in size from .1 nanometers (the size of a hydrogen atom) to 100 nanometers (the size of a virus). The rationale for choosing this size range is not merely a bureaucratic technicality. Many materials, once they are individually reduced below 100 nanometers, begin displaying a set of unique characteristics based on quantum mechanical forces that are exhibited at the atomic level. Due to these quantum mechanical effects, materials may become more conducting, able to transfer heat better, or have modified mechanical properties.
By using this definition, we will exclude some things that others now try to define as nanotechnology. For example, many items, such as Intel's latest semiconductor chip, which has transistors as narrow as 130 nanometers, can now be measured at a scale close to 100 nanometers. Most such advances, however, are the result of miniaturization using the same approach or process. This is similar to a potter who is making a soup tureen and bowls. The material and process are essentially the same (clay, water, hands, and a rotating wheel), but the amount of material and the steps used to form the different elements will be slightly modified since the bowls are smaller versions of the tureen.
Another area that should be distinguished from nanotech is a class of miniaturized systems called MEMS (Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems). These tiny mechanical systems, which are the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry, use processes similar to those used for making semiconductors to manufacture devices like gears, pumps, and cantilevers. (Think of MEMS as traditional manufacturing only at a micro-sized scale.)
The distinction between nanomeasurement above and below 100 nanometers is very important because it has already become trendy in some business circles to affix the term nano to a company's name. But beware: Not all "nano" companies are created equal. Just because a company can measure some component of its business in nanometers does not mean that it is necessarily a nanotechnology company. This does not mean, however, that the company's product is not viable or that the company is not a threat to your business. The business world will continue to be populated with many successful non-nanotechnology companies capitalizing on the commercialization of this new field, although few of these will evade nanotechnology's implications. In fact, chemists and biologists have been dealing with and measuring things in the nano-range for decades-but they are only now beginning to learn the art and science of manipulating those things.
The other aspect of nanotechnology, the truly exciting side, is nanomanipulation, or building things from the bottom up, atom by atom. Nanomanipulation can be classified into two categories: nanofabrication and self-assembly. Nanofabrication (also called nanoscale engineering) refers to the actual sculpting or building, with man-made tools, of products, structures, and processes with atomic precision. Self-assembly, on the other hand, is the process of atoms and molecules adhering in a self-regulated fashion, whereby specific atoms and molecules bind to one another based on their size, shape, composition, or chemical properties. A tree constructing itself out of the surrounding molecules in the air, water, and dirt is an example, from Mother Nature, of self-assembly.
The distinction between nanofabrication and self-assembly can be more clearly illustrated using the computer chip as an example. Numerous companies, including Intel, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard, are working with carbon nanotubes in the hope that the thin tubes (1.4 nanometers in diameter, resembling a rolled tube of chicken wire) can be fabricated, integrated onto existing silicon chips, and used to make computers run much faster. (This technology will be discussed in greater detail in chapter six.) If successful-if carbon nanotubes can be used in an integrated circuit-this will undoubtedly be a legitimate business accomplishment, lead to more powerful computers, generate new business, and bring those companies (and the entire industry) into the nanotech arena.
On the other hand, numerous academic researchers as well as at least two commercial start-ups (Nanosys, Inc. and ZettaCore) are also constructing circuits by getting individual molecules to connect automatically in a prescribed pattern (self-assembly). If they pull this off and build a circuit from the molecule up, it will lead to vastly more powerful computers and entirely new products, applications, and commercial markets. In short, it will represent revolutionary change. The smart money is on this technology because a hundredfold reduction in size is actually the equivalent to a potential 10,000-fold increase in computing power, because the entire area of circuit is reduced one hundred times on both sides. Such an immensely more powerful computer will make real-time voice translation seem like child's play-so much so that the United Nations would need significantly fewer interpreters, and the travel and vacation industries would likely undergo some change as people became more likely to visit more and different destinations because language would no longer be a barrier. (Other nanotechnology-enabled advances in the areas of transportation and sensors will likely alleviate other barriers to foreign travel-such as cost and security concerns-and will also affect the travel industry.)
To paraphrase Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma, whoever can commercially produce molecular circuits at a scalable level will have created a disruptive technology (one that can render billion-dollar industries obsolete). When a disruptive technology comes along, everyone-including business leaders-goes back to zero. Yesterday's accomplishments and achievements, no matter how big or profitable, will mean little. Just look at the above example of the molecular computer. It will require a completely different support infrastructure-software makers and chip manufacturers must adjust their products accordingly-and end-user applications
will blossom as people and businesses find new uses for superpowerful, supersmall (and potentially supercheap) computers. For instance, if chips become small enough, suddenly the idea of tiny computers embedded in your clothing that can monitor your health no longer sounds
so futuristic-or at least no more futuristic than the makers of ENIAC trying to envision a computer so small, so cheap, and so powerful that it could be used in a greeting card.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Next Big Thing Is Really Small by Jack Uldrich with Deb Newberry. Copyright © 2003 by Jack Uldrich with Deb Newberry. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.