Friday, October 2, 2009

20 Years of Building Stuff One Atom at a Time

"20 Years of Moving Atoms, One by One"
Gadget Lab, Wired (September 30, 2009)

"Sometimes genius looks like an elegant equation written in chalk on a blackboard. Sometimes it's a hodgepodge of wires, canisters and aluminum-foil-wrapped hoses, all held together by shiny bolts.

"Despite its homebrew appearance, this device, a scanning tunneling microscope, is one of the most extraordinary lab instruments of the last three decades. It can pick up individual atoms one by one and move them around to create supersmall structures, a fundamental requirement for nanotechnology.

"Twenty years ago this week, on Sept. 28, 1989, an IBM physicist, Don Eigler, became the first person to manipulate and position individual atoms. Less than two months later, he arranged 35 Xenon atoms to spell out the letters IBM. Writing those three characters took about 22 hours. Today, the process would take about 15 minutes...."

Okay: Being able to spell "IBM" with 35 xenon atoms, although cool, doesn't have all that many practical applications.

Being able to build machines, one atom at a time, at extremely small scales: That's got real possibilities.

We've got small devices now, like ViRob, an R&D prototype that's designed to tunnel through a person's body. It's small: about one by four millimeters. That's small, but certainly not microscopic.

"Nanotechnology" Doesn't Mean 'Kinda Small'

"Nanotechnology" is "the branch of engineering that deals with things smaller than 100 nanometers (especially with the manipulation of individual molecules)" (Princeton's WordNet) One nanometer is one billionth of a meter, or 0.000000001 of a meter. A millimeter, by comparison, is one thousandth of a meter, or 0.001 of a meter.

So Virob is about 1,000,000 by 4,000,000 nanometers. Yeah: That's small. But not what you could reasonably call 'nanotech.' You could measure the Queen Mary 2 in inches. (The QE2 is roughly 13,500 inches long.) But that doesn't mean it's equivalent in size to other things we measure in inches - like desktop computers.

Real nanotech, though, where machines could have individual molecules as components, has exciting possibilities beyond making really small data processing units.

So We May be Able to Build Really Small Machines: So What?

A human's red blood cell is about six to ten micrometers (AKA microns) in diameter: 0.000006 to 0.00001 meters across; or - if I'm doing the math right, 6,000 to 10,000 nanometers across. Viruses are 30 to 50 nanometers across, atoms around 0.1 to 0.3 nanometers, depending on the element. ("Size and Scale," Materials Research Science and Engineering Center / Interdisciplinary Education Group, University of Wisconsin, Madison)

They may not go into production in my lifetime - but I'm pretty sure we'll soon have machines around the size of one of our red blood cells, able to travel through our blood vessels without damaging them: programmed to look for (and maybe fix) damaged veins, arteries, and capillaries. Others could be made to swim or burrow between our cells, acting as a sort of artificial immune system.

Okay - maybe not "soon" in the American sense of the word. But I think, based on what information technology and miniaturization has done in my lifetime, the time scale is decades rather than centuries.

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