The Future of Nanotechnology

Only a fool would predict the future.Ancient Chinese Proverb

Predicting the future is a hazardous task. What we need is a tool chest of relevant experience and intuition, one that enables us to move from today's paradigm to a vision of tomorrow's potential. These tools are needed because the rules of the physical world change when technology moves to the atomic level. Our everyday understanding of mass and inertia, which govern actions such as driving an automobile, no longer apply at the nanoscale.

For example, think of inserting a straw into a glass of water. Based on what we have been taught in the macro world, water seeks its own level. Thus, we would expect the water inside the straw to remain at the same level as the water on the outside of the straw, and that is the case. Yet if you were to dip a capillary tube into the same glass of water, the water would rapidly rise in the capillary far above the level of water in the glass. The rules change as we cross from our world of macro reality into the dimension of the capillary, and so it will be with nanotechnology.

Only scientists armed with a sound understanding of the fundamental principles are likely to explore, discover, and invent. They will be questioned and challenged every step of the way. Such was the case with Riggs, Itakura, and Boyer in the example of synthetic insulin. Somatostatin was an experiment of high potential and promise to the City of Hope scientists, and yet even the expert reviewers at the National Institutes of Health failed to recognize the value of the Riggs-Itakura grant proposal. Boyer, well versed in the science, understood the logic and so was able to sell the idea to Swanson. This secured financial support for the somatostatin experiment based on the promise that it provided the pathway to insulin. And so it did.

In the brief history and concepts offered in this chapter, a greatly simplified view has been taken. Fundamental to any view of technological innovation is the discontinuity between two S-curvesin this case, the step from biotechnology to nanotechnology. In the biotechnology example, we relied on natureenzymesto do the molecular manipulation of cutting and pasting DNA molecules, and we relied on bacteria to provide the factories for creation of new sources of materials. As we move into the nanotechnology era, all the experience and tools of chemistry and biology in general and recombinant DNA in particular are at our disposal. But rather than rely on enzymes and bacteria, we must now create new nanoscale tools and processes, and it will take time. The ensuing commercialization pathway requires a number of well-defined elements. After discovery come the requirements of demand, investment, and implementation.

By way of example, William Coblentz of the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., first examined and documented the relationship between the chemical structure of molecules and infrared absorption spectra in 1905.[13] Yet even with the substantial knowledge base that grew from this original work, the first commercial infrared spectrophotometer (an instrument that measures light absorption as a function of wavelength) was not produced until 1942, when it was driven by demand: the urgent need during World War II to produce synthetic rubber. Commercial progress follows as technology evolves from the science to fulfill unmet needs in the marketplace. In the case of nanotechnology it will be evolutionary and ubiquitous, and not revolutionary and spontaneous.

Predicting the future is a hazardous task, but you can try it by conducting this thought experiment. Consider the world before synthetic fibers, such as nylon; then jump back to the earlier S-curve of natural fibers: hemp, silk, and cotton. With your feet planted in that earlier S-curve, use your tool chest of relevant experience and "enlightened" intuition to envision the world of synthetic fibers. Describe their characteristics; envision the ubiquitous applications that these new materials would enable. You have just experienced the S-curve discontinuity. Now consider the drivers required for the new synthetic technology to become commercial reality.

You have just forecast the future of nanotechnology. Read on.

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