4: Molecular Machines Aren't Fantasy. Just Ask the Pentagon
BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE

In the 2020s, you may be able to buy a ''recipe'' for a PC over the net, insert plastic and conductive molecules into your ''nanobox,'' and have it spit out a computer

Matter will become software. That's not a misprint: Matter will become software. As a result, we'll be able to use the Internet to download not just software but hardware, too. So predicts James C. Ellenbogen, the nanotechnology honcho at Mitre Corp., a Pentagon-funded research center in McLean, Va.


Video:
IBM's Gerd Binnig*
Nanotechnology is the craft of constructing things smaller than a few hundred nanometers, or billionths of a meter. That's the span of a few scores of atoms strung together. Move automated assembly down to such scales, and the implications for manufacturing are pretty clear: Whole sectors of production could get clobbered. It could start with semiconductors in the 2010s, then spread to other small products, like cellular phones.

Ellenbogen makes a compelling case for his matter-as-software scenario. ''Think about what happens when you download software today,'' he explains. ''You're rearranging the material structure on your disk'' by changing the magnetic properties of clumps of molecules. If the guts of computers were no larger than those clumps, you could rearrange molecules on the disk to build chips. Researchers are already busy developing techniques to make pinhead-size computers, ''and the bits and pieces of these nanocomputers are far smaller than the physical structures we now manipulate to hold information on disk drives,'' Ellenbogen says. ''So someday soon, we could download hardware from the Net just like we download software today.''

New disk drives will be needed to physically reproduce some hardware downloads. One concept is to make a read/write head from a cluster of ultrasharp points to nudge atoms and molecules this way or that. Two groups--headed by Calvin F. Quate at Stanford University and Noel C. MacDonald at Cornell University--are working on that, building on a decade of experiments using the tips of scanning-tunneling microscopes and related gear to move atoms around. The first such feat came in 1990, when Donald M. Eigler, a physicist at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., wrote ''IBM'' on a nickel plate with 35 xenon atoms.

''Once we have the technology to build computers no bigger than grains of salt,'' Ellenbogen says, ''we're in a fundamentally new ball game.'' Computers that tiny will be dirt cheap, so they'll be everywhere. A computer in lingerie will tell the washing machine what the water temperature should be. Ballpoint pens will blink a warning when their ink gets low. Your shoes will let your car know you're approaching, so it can adjust the seat and mirrors and unlock the door.

COPY SHOP. But the grand slam in the matter-is-software ballpark will be the nanobox. This is a sort of futuristic copy machine that combines nanotech fabrication with today's so-called desktop-manufacturing methods, used mainly to knock out quick prototypes of new products. If you want a new cell phone, you'll purchase a recipe on the Net. It will tell you to insert a sheet of plastic and squirt electrically conductive molecules into the ''toner'' cartridge. The nanobox will pass the plastic back and forth, laying down patterns of molecules, then electrically direct them to assemble themselves into circuits and an antenna. Next, using different ''toners,'' the nanobox will add a keypad, speaker, and microphone and finally build up a housing.

Don't expect such a gadget until around 2020. The first experiments to download nanoscale computer circuits won't happen much before 2005. A decade after that, nanofab systems could be ''writing matter''--initially producing nanochips.

Concrete progress toward that goal came in July from the branch of nanotech called molecular electronics. A team from the University of California at Los Angeles and Hewlett-Packard Laboratories unveiled a so-called logic gate made by molecular self-assembly. Next, the team will shrink the wires on chips, aiming to produce chips ''in the region of 100 nanometers on a side,'' says Philip J. Kuekes, a researcher at HP Labs. ''What makes chipmaking so expensive now,'' he adds, ''is the extreme mechanical precision required. But with chemistry, we can turn out chips like Kodak does film--in long rolls, and you'll just cut out little squares.''

Such notions have grabbed Washington's attention. Seven months ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a Molecular Electronics Program. And Congress seems eager to spend a lot more on nanotech research. One plan would double the current budget of $232 million over the next three years. The White House may go along, because it has already tagged nanotech as one of 11 critical research areas.

Back at Mitre, the latest feat of Ellenbogen's crew, unveiled in mid-August, is a design for a minuscule robot to help assemble nanofabrication systems. Currently, it measures almost five millimeters along one side, or one-sixth of an inch. But suppose such robots were to use nanofab techniques to produce progressively smaller versions of themselves. Eventually, they might end up smaller than specks of dust.

Robots that tiny could fulfill K. Eric Drexler's vision of nanobots capable of manipulating individual atoms. In his trailblazing 1986 book, Engines of Creation, the founder of the Foresight Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., painted a riveting picture of nanotech's potential. Drexler essentially launched the nanotech era and inspired such fancies as armies of invisible nanobots roaming carpets and shelves, dismantling dust into atoms that get reconstituted as napkins, soap, or anything else--including nanocomputers.

Building computers atom by atom remains a distant dream, though, and Ellenbogen wants quick results. ''So I'm betting on molecular electronics for the near term,'' he says. That looks like a good nanogamble.

By OTIS PORT

*Binnig is IBM's research director. Video interview by Otis Port (Needs G2 Player)

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RELATED ITEMS
4: Molecular Machines Aren't Fantasy. Just Ask the Pentagon

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VIDEO Gerd Binnig, Director of Research, IBM
(Needs G2 Player)

Links

Brad Hein's Nanotechnology Site

Mitre Corp.'s nanotechnology program

Eric Drexler's Foresight Institute

NASA picture gallery of nanotech devices

New York University's nanobot (made from DNA)

Nanotechnology and Molecular Machines

Nanotechnology Magazine

Gallery of Molecular Machines

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology Database



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