‘Founding Father’ of Nanotechnology Answers Your Questions

IEEE Member K. Eric Drexler sparked conversation about the tiny technology

13 January 2014

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Our December issue on nanotechnology covered several uses of the technology, such as to better diagnose cancer and to help purify water more efficiently and on a larger scale. To help members better understand its applications, we invited IEEE Member K. Eric Drexler, known as the founding father of nanotechnology and the author of Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, [Public Affairs, 2013] to answer readers’ questions about the evolution and future of nanotech. Read the Q&A and continue the conversation by submitting your comments below or on Twitter @IEEEInstitute.

Q: The research in your 1986 book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology has become a reality. What is your response to the progress of nanotechnology today, and is there anything you might have overlooked then that is now taking place in the field?

KED: Since 1986 we have seen progress in the molecular sciences from building atomically precise structures with hundreds of atoms to now millions. What’s more, these structures are typically produced trillions at a time in ordinary laboratories using inexpensive equipment. While there has been enormous progress in the research directions that I outlined in 1986, there is still a long road ahead.

The kind of nanotechnology that I described then is based on atomically precise, nanoscale machine systems much like 3-D printers that can build a wide range of atomically precise products, including extraordinarily dense and efficient digital logic systems. We’re not there yet.

Q: What advice would you give undergraduate and graduate students about entering the field of nanotechnology? And is there an emerging area they should focus on based on job opportunities in the coming years?

KED: I would recommend studies that provide a solid understanding of the fundamentals of physics and molecular systems. These include molecular dynamics and practical methods for quantum calculations in chemistry and materials science, as well as fundamental engineering principles of design and analysis. This background can provide a basis for work in any of the many areas of nanotechnology research and development that will emerge in the years to come.

Q: As more products and devices are made with nanomaterials, will there be unintended consequences, and what might those be?

KED: As in all areas of technology, there will be both unexpected applications and unintended consequences. In the area of nanomaterials, the main unintended consequences are generally toxicological. These concerns, which are in line with the safety concerns that are already in the chemical and materials industries, demand attention.

Q: How can engineers build larger and more complex structures with atomically precise technologies and still retain their preciseness once built?

KED: The challenge today is indeed to scale up atomically precise structures and to expand the range of materials and structures that can be built. Atomically precise building blocks can be brought together and aligned with atomic precision by means of Brownian motion and selective, spontaneous attachment, also known as self-assembly. This is the key method today. And physics tells us that atomically precise fabrication can advance much further.

Q: Is the idea of molecular robots, known as nanobots, possible and, if so, what would they look like and how would they be used?

KED: At the molecular scale of tens of nanometers, there simply isn’t room for the number of components needed to build complex machines like the ones portrayed in science fiction. The smallest machines can be built in the deep sub-micron range, operating at megahertz frequencies.

On the nanoscale level, production of low-cost, high-performance capabilities for machines is possible. Think of atoms and molecules in place of bits and bytes, or arrays of billions to trillions of components that are coordinated by hardware-level design and software-level control, to make machines lighter and more efficient. This helps provide a general picture of its application potential at a conceptual level.

Q: What are some ways do-it-yourselfers can experiment with and learn more about nanotechnology?

ED: Today, one of the most productive areas for do-it-yourself work is the development and application of engineering design tools. These can be based on standard molecular dynamics and quantum chemistry modeling software used in the molecular sciences, many of which are available for free. The development and application of design tools may well determine the pace of progress in physical developments in the years to come, and what’s more, designing and simulating atomically precise devices can be a lot of fun.

Q: What problem—technical, institutional, or cultural—would you like to see solved with nanotechnology?

ED: Current nanotechnologies are enabling advances in areas as diverse as materials, medicine, and solar photovoltaics. Further advances will solve a range of technical problems in these areas.

Advanced atomically precise manufacturing, when it emerges, promises to bring something more: a broad and transformative revolution in the physical foundations of technology and civilization. This revolution will have enormous implications for economic and military affairs, health care, and for solving environmental problems on a global scale. It is hard to know where to begin in discussing these prospects. ­

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