Nanotech: More science than fiction
Nanotechnology was once the stuff of science-fiction fantasy: Tiny robots tinkering on a microscopic scale, killing cancers or eradicating pollution.
Today, spurred by research and investment, the science of building almost unfathomably small things is maturing with the help of a growing number of devotees in the technology industry and on Wall Street.
Technology leaders such as IBM, Intel and Hewlett-Packard--as well as start-ups and the U.S. government--are spending big bucks to make the science of nanotechnology commercially viable. They're building a world in which the technology will be used for memory chips, mini-computers, cancer treatments and even military applications
At the simplest level , nanotechnology
is the manipulation of single atoms and molecules to create objects that can
be smaller than
But nanotechnology is much more complex than just stacking carbon atoms into diamonds. In this infinitesimal realm, materials are subject to the peculiar laws of quantum mechanics, in which electrons are blurs of probability. And the technology, with its blend of complex organic molecules, physical principles and chemical engineering, will force previously unrelated disciplines to work together, analysts say.
"Nanotech, biotech and infotech will converge," said Steve Jurvetson, a founder of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which is investing in nanotechnology companies. "You won't think about installing Microsoft Office anymore. You'll think about growing software."
The line is blurring in several ways. Scientists are learning to imitate biological patterns; biological entities are being used in technology products; and in the more distant future, nanomachines may be circulating through our bloodstreams, attacking tumors and dispersing medicine.
The revolution won't happen overnight, and even nanotechnology's biggest supporters acknowledge that the field could become the next craze--think dot-coms--in which hype outruns real application and business sense. Even Jurvetson allows that the "business path to nanotech is also rife with pitfalls."
Nevertheless, recent developments indicate that the science is progressing well beyond the " white paper" stage. For starters, the government, tech titans and venture capitalists are pouring money into the field, producing breakthroughs that have enabled several companies to make nanotechnology product announcements.
These prospects have grabbed VCs' attention. The International Business
Forum on Feb.
VCs and Wall Street strategists are among the biggest cheerleaders for nanotech, but it seems to be getting support from others as well:
• President George Bush this
month submitted a $
• The Nobel Prize for physics
• In corporate developments, HP
and University of California scientists on Jan.
"The technology is just starting to filter down from the universities into the commercial world," said Greg Schmergel, CEO of Nantero, a Woburn, Mass.-based start-up using nanotechnology to create a high-density memory chip.
Despite the recent flurry of activity, the nanotech race is not a sprint;
it's a marathon, with some applications taking a decade to incubate. The
National Science Foundation forecasts that the market for nanotechnology
products and services will reach $
Bellwethers: Innovate or die?
"HP has had limited success with its quantum science research team, and Intel has been expending most of its efforts trying to sustain its lead in the chip business," said Steven Milunovich, a Merrill Lynch analyst.
"IBM is going after nanotech on multiple levels," he said, adding that the company's Millipede technology and carbon nanotubes are "the highest-profile items" being developed.
The Millipede technology will be able to store
IBM has been a pioneer in nanotechnology. In
In the next two to three years, IBM plans to start creating commercial products that use the Millipede technology.
Christopher Murray, manager of nanoscale science at IBM Research who works in the IBM T.J. Watson Research Lab in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., said the company is focusing its research on carbon nanotubes as well as magnetic tunnel junctions, which may one day replace current storage cells in DRAM (dynamic RAM) memory chips.
Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner of Lux Capital, speculates
that IBM is devoting about
Wolfe said IBM's progress is promising. "Millipede technology is disruptive; it's heading a shift to thermomechanical storage," said Wolfe, who added that IBM can always license its technology to others if it doesn't develop its own nanotech products.
According to John Roy, a Merrill Lynch technology strategist, IBM's
Millipede and Intel's
Rob Willoner, technical analyst with Intel's technology and manufacturing
group, said the company has produced transistors with a "gate length" of
"We're expecting transistors of (
He said nanotechnology will put faster and smaller transistors on chips.
That will enable chips to handle more power-intensive applications such as
real-time voice and face recognition. "It basically enables the continuance
of Moore's Law," he said. Moore's Law states that the number of transistors
a chip can hold will double every
As for HP, the company and its partners in academia are targeting molecular computing. Its foundation is based on complex molecules that can be flipped back and forth between two states by electricity.
Initial uses--perhaps in the next five years--will be for memory that can store digital information in the form of ones and zeros. But HP also believes the molecules that can switch between two states will work for processing that information the way today's CPUs do, said Phil Keukes, a nanotechnology computer architect at HP Labs.
"We do have a strategy for logic. It's not perfect, but to completely replace the integrated circuit, you're going to need something like that," Keukes said.
HP also is working on the difficult problem of manufacturing molecular
computing systems--a key hurdle in making lab ideas profitable--and
connecting them to the larger-scale world with tiny wires. HP has created a
way to produce wires that not only are
The technology uses chemical processes rather than methods such as electron force microscopes that can only push a few atoms around at a time.
HP also is working on technology that will adjust to the inevitable errors that these new tiny chips will have. "We're going to get so many wires that we can afford defects," Keukes said, but software will be needed to diagnose exactly where the errors are.
Not just the big boys
Nantero--founded a year ago by three graduates of Harvard, two with chemistry Ph.D.s--received so much attention it has had to turn down venture capital.
The company got $
Nantero is working on memory chips based on organic substances. It plans
to have a commercial prototype in the next one or two years, Schmergel said.
The technology, called NRAM (nonvolatile RAM), will provide a universal
memory chip that can replace DRAM, SRAM (static RAM), flash memory and hard
disk storage--an aggregate market that the company estimates is worth about
Nantero already has one patent and has applied for several others. "We just can't have that many competitors; it would take a decade or two before that changes," Schmergel said. "It takes years and years of training to catch up in this kind of technology."
Other start-ups are also hot on the trail. According to Merrill Lynch, start-ups to watch include Coatue, Molecular Electronics, Nanosphere, ZettaCore and Zyvex.
Schmergel, who has accepted money from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Stata Venture Partners and Harris & Harris Group, said a lot of VCs are trying to jump on the nanotech bandwagon.
The downside is that bandwagons tip over, especially when technology can't keep up with expectations.
Steve Crosby, managing editor of Small Times, which tracks the nanotechnology industry, said excessive hype may be the biggest thorn in the industry's side. The atmosphere at a recent Harvard Business School conference on nanotechnology was evidence of this, according to Crosby.
"There was a feeling among this small group of people that track the industry that all the hype about the potential is probably true--it really is the next big thing," Crosby said. "The only part anyone was cautious about is putting a timetable on things."
Attack of the killer goo
Eric K. Drexler's
Therefore, scientists need nanoscale devices to build nanoscale objects. Though that problem has been partly overcome with the creation of some innovative new tools, a major problem persists: With such small assembly, to make something big enough for humans to use, it would require thousands of nanobots making thousands of nanoscale manipulations over thousands of years.
That problem can be solved by creating replicators--nanobots that build other nanobots--to speed up the process, nanotech enthusiasts say. But the idea of replicators makes some people uneasy.
Nanotechnology is seen by some as the first step on what could be a slippery slope into an apocalyptic pit of "gray goo." The term was popularized in an article that appeared in Wired magazine written by Bill Joy, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems. It is used by nanotech cognoscenti to describe what they believe would result from the creation of self-assembling replicators.
Joy and others have cautioned that the self-replicating miniature robots, though invisible to the human eye, could result in a kind of gray goo if their multiplication ever got out of control. Armies of "blue goo," or destructive nanomachines, have even been proposed as a law enforcement measure.
Wolfe said he has seen plenty of business proposals based on such ideas, but he considers them implausible.
"It's utter nonsense--thoughts that you can change the economy because you can manufacture things instantaneously at your desk by just hitting a button," Wolfe said.
Of course, not everyone considers it ridiculous--a sign of the diversity in the nanotech community.
Wolfe divides nanotech mavens into two categories. "There is a scale that moves from left to right," he said. "There are the 'cosa nostra,' or the 'mental enthusiasts'--like (Ray) Kurzweil--the extropians and the transhumanists," and then there are the down-to-earth folks, trying to "de-nanobot" the field.
On the more far-out side, one business proposal Wolfe recently saw involved cryogenically freezing the deceased and bringing them back with nanobots in the future.
As far as Wolfe is concerned, any technology based on the "Drexlerian vision of nanotech"--that is, the self-replicating assembler--should be put in its place.
These far-out ideas should "promote ethical debates and get people involved," but "investors should not be looking at that type of thing," he said.
News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.