A BIG Future for
Ensuring the Promise of Nanotechnology
Think big, but envision small. Almost invisible, in fact -- no larger than 1/100,000 the width of a human hair. Now imagine working on that scale.
Nanotechnology is a science that does just that, manipulating matter at the atomic, molecular, and macromolecular levels. Operating at these most basic levels, scientists are able to create materials, devices, and systems with fundamentally new properties and functions. Industry and academia aim to use the science to design a new generation of products that are faster, cheaper, lighter, and stronger.
Science and engineering at the nanoscale will have a dramatic impact on fields such as computing, telecommunications, and medicine. One example is the application of nanosized semiconductor crystals known as "quantum dots," which fluoresce when irradiated. Quantum dots can be attached to genetic base pairs and used as markers for DNA diagnostics. Attaching dots of different sizes to different molecules allows researchers to track biological processes by monitoring the molecules' fluorescence. Because of their semiconducting properties, they also might serve as components of potentially faster, more efficient computers that can store trillions of bits of information on a device no larger than a pinhead.
For nanotechnology to fulfill its promise, however, the government-funded National Nanotechnology Initiative -- which has received almost $1 billion in funding since 2001 -- needs to increase its support of long-term research and promote more interdisciplinary efforts, says a new report from the National Research Council.
One of the initiative's current long-range goals is to move the science out of the laboratory and into society. For this to happen, a continued investment in the development of tools that allow scientists to view, model, and manipulate nanoscale objects is necessary.
A new breed of scientist also must emerge, one who is well-grounded in a specific discipline but able to work across multiple fields, the report says. This is essential because nanoscale science and technology combines many disciplines, such as biology, physics, chemistry, and engineering. Nanotechnology centers in the United States currently encourage collaboration, but creation of a more widespread interdisciplinary culture -- both nationally and internationally -- is crucial to stimulating growth in the field.
Federal leaders of the initiative need to develop an overarching strategic plan, and outline goals and objectives, especially long-term ones. To provide further guidance to federal agencies on important R&D opportunities, an independent advisory board composed of leaders from industry and academia should be established, the report recommends. --Jennifer Burris
Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers: A Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Committee for the Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2002, 68 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08655-8; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $23.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by Samuel Stupp, professor, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.