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A brief history

A brief history of nanotechnology
PTI | By
PUBLISHED ON JAN 07, 2005 05:51 PM IST

Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr Richard Feynman gave a famous dinner talk in 1959 called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." He described how it might be possible to print the 24-volume Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a stick pin.

"I am not afraid to consider the final question as to whether, ultimately in the great future we can arrange atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down!", he said.

He even speculated on how to write information at atomic levels and how to construct atomic-sized machines: "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of manoeuvring things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws... but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big."

Although theoretically reasonable, the concept of building objects atom by atom yielded nothing for almost 20 years. In the late 1970s, an aerospace engineering student at the Masachussets Institute of Technology (MIT) again reinvented the idea of building with atoms based on the then scientific craze — genetic engineering. After receiving an interdisciplinary PhD, K Eric Drexler began a one-man movement to prove the feasibility of nanotechnology.

In that direction, he has talked and written extensively on the subject to scientific, political and general audiences. He has designed theoretical nanomachines and written engineering texts on the subject. Currently, Drexler promotes nanotechnology as head of the Foresight Institute, which he founded. Despite Drexler's scholarly research on the subject, many scientists contested that nanotechnology was a concept and nothing more. Until laboratory research and engineering work was done, they claimed, we could not know the potential or even the likelihood of nanotechnology.

Steps toward the new technology are being made. In 1982 the first scanning tunneling microscope (STM) was developed at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory. With the STM, researchers were able to move individual atoms at will by feel. An artificial protein, which is what an assembler would probably be, was first designed in 1988 by William DeGrado in at E.I. du Pont de Nemours Laboratories in Delaware, U.S.A.

Protein engineering may enable us to design molecular devices in the next five to ten years which can serve as machinery. Many experts in biology, chemical engineering, artificial intelligence believe that by 2010 we will see major, large-scale applications of nanotechnology.

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