Manipulating individual atoms and molecules to alter a material's makeup at the most basic level seems more like science fiction than science, but scientists are doing just that, changing everything from the composition of lipsticks and sunblocks to the most advanced medicine and information technology. This science and technology, known as nanotechnology, is carried out on a scale of approximately 1/100,000 the width of a human hair.
For nanotechnology to fulfill its promise of revolutionizing industry, however, the government-funded National Nanotechnology Initiative needs to increase its support of long-term research and promote more interdisciplinary effort, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The White House Economic Council and other federal agencies requested a review of the initiative, which has received almost $1 billion in funding since 2001.
The second half of the 20th century saw the advent of microtechnologies, which allowed the creation of computers and the Internet, and set the stage for today's nanotechnology revolution. Manipulating matter at the atomic level will have a dramatic impact on fields such as computing, telecommunications, and medicine.
For example, when nanosized semiconductor crystals known as "quantum dots" are irradiated, they fluoresce. Attaching dots of different sizes to different molecules allows researchers to track biological processes by monitoring the molecules' fluorescence.
Quantum dots also can be attached to DNA base pairs and used as markers for DNA diagnostics. Because of their semiconducting properties, these quantum dots also might serve as components of potentially faster, more efficient computers based on the laws of quantum mechanics.
In the future, nanotechnology is expected to improve medical diagnostics and therapies, as well, and to create more compatible materials for use in bone and tissue transplants.
Further study of the basic scientific principles of nanotechnology is needed before many of the anticipated applications can be achieved.
Nanoscale science and technology combines many disciplines, such as biology, physics, chemistry, and engineering, so researchers need to be able to work across multiple fields, the report says.
Nanotechnology centers in the United States encourage collaborations, but creation of a more widespread interdisciplinary culture is needed. Creative programs and long-term funding commitments are needed to encourage the development of interdisciplinary research.
An independent advisory board composed of leaders from industry and academia should be established to provide guidance to federal agencies on important research and development opportunities in nanoscale science and technology, the report adds. Federal leaders of the initiative need to develop an overarching strategic plan, and outline goals and objectives, especially long-term ones.
One of the initiative's current long-term goals is to move the science out of the laboratory and into society. In order for this to occur, however, continued investment in the development of nanotechnology instruments -- tools that allow scientists to view, model, and manipulate nanoscale objects -- is necessary, the report says.
Historically, many important advances in science have come only after the necessary investigative instruments have become available.
The initiative will require continued collaboration at the local, national, and international level, the report emphasized. Partnerships with industry should be stimulated and nurtured to make the science a commercial reality.
This study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.
Full report is available for online viewing
National Academy of Sciences
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Adding Up With Individual Atoms
Ann Arbor - Jun 17, 2002
Researchers at the University of Michigan's Center for Optical Coherent and Ultrafast Science (FOCUS) and Department of Physics have reported the first demonstration of laser-cooling of individual trapped atoms of different species.
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