History and Future of Nanotechnology

The first use of the concepts in ‘nano-technology’ (but predating use of that name) was in “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” a talk given by physicist Richard Feynman at an American Physical Society meeting at Caltech on December 29, 1959.

Feynman described a process by which the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules might be developed, using one set of precise tools to build and operate another proportionally smaller set, so on down to the needed scale. In the course of this, he noted, scaling issues would arise from the changing magnitude of various physical phenomena: gravity would become less important, surface tension and Van der Waals attraction would become more important, etc. This basic idea appears plausible, and exponential assembly enhances it with parallelism to produce a useful quantity of end products. The term “nanotechnology” was defined by Tokyo Science University Professor Norio Taniguchi in a 1974 paper as follows: “‘Nano-technology’ mainly consists of the processing of, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or by one molecule.”

In the 1980s the basic idea of this definition was explored in much more depth by Dr. K. Eric Drexler, who promoted the technological significance of nano-scale phenomena and devices through speeches and the books Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986) and Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, and so the term acquired its current sense. Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology is considered the first book on the topic of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology and nanoscience got started in the early 1980s with two major developments; the birth of cluster science and the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). This development led to the discovery of fullerenes in 1986 and carbon nanotubes a few years later. In another development, the synthesis and properties of semiconductor nanocrystals was studied; This led to a fast increasing number of metal oxide nanoparticles of quantum dots. The atomic force microscope was invented six years after the STM was invented. In 2000, the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative was founded to coordinate Federal nanotechnology research and development.   Today nanotechnology is reshaping technology.


The Origin of Nanotechnology

Truly revolutionary nanotechnology products, materials and applications, such as nanorobotics, are years in the future (some say only a few years; some say many years). What qualifies as “nanotechnology” today is basic research and development that is happening in laboratories all over the world. “Nanotechnology” products that are on the market today are mostly gradually improved products (using evolutionary nanotechnology) where some form of nanotechnology enabled material (such as carbon nanotubes, nanocomposite structures or nanoparticles of a particular substance) or nanotechnology process (e.g. nanopatterning or quantum dots for medical imaging) is used in the manufacturing process. In their ongoing quest to improve existing products by creating smaller components and better performance materials, all at a lower cost, the number of companies that will manufacture “nanoproducts” (by this definition) will grow very fast and soon make up the majority of all companies across many industries. Evolutionary nanotechnology should therefore be viewed as a process that gradually will affect most companies and industries.

Nanotechnology Drives the Next Growth Cycle

Today, in the young field of nanotechnology, scientists and engineers are taking control of atoms and molecules individually, manipulating them and putting them to use with an extraordinary degree of precision. Word of the promise of nanotechnology is spreading rapidly, and the air is thick with news of nanotech breakthroughs. Governments and businesses are investing billions of dollars in nanotechnology R&D, and political alliances and battle lines are starting to form. Public awareness of nanotech is clearly on the rise, too, partly because references to it are becoming more common in popular culture-with mentions in movies, books, video games, and television.

Yet there remains a great deal of confusion about just what nanotechnology is, both among the ordinary people whose lives will be changed by the new science, and among the policymakers who wittingly or unwittingly will help steer its course. Much of the confusion comes from the name “nanotechnology,” which is applied to two different things-that is, to two distinct but related fields of research, one with the potential to improve today’s world, the other with the potential to utterly remake or even destroy it. The meaning that nanotechnology holds for our future depends on which definition of the word “nanotechnology” pans out.