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Nonexistent technology gets a hearing.

Nonexistent technology gets a hearing

Sooner or later, the Age of Nanotechnology -- in which scientists will use molecule-sized machinery to control the structure of matter even at atomic levels -- will arrive. That message emerged in Palo Alto, Calif., last weekend at the first major U.S. conference devoted to the topic.

Traditionally, making chemicals and materials has meant trying to control huge crowds of atoms and molecules so that their mob activities yield the desired products. Nanotechnology, as envisioned by conference chairman and engineer Eric Drexler, would mean getting personal with molecular individuals. Drexler has spent years arguing that designing machines on the nanometer (one-billionth of a meter) scale for directly assembling molecular and atomic components is possible at least in principle, despite the impossibility of building such machines now. The existence of molecular machinery (enzymes) inside cells proves such structures can be built in nature, he notes. Drexler heads the Palo Alto-based Foresight Institute, whose stated mission is to "prepare for future technologies."

Many conference participants agree that nanotechnology ("nano" comes from the Greek word for dwarf) will someday fulfill its seeming potential. Others question that prognosis.

The seeds of nanotechnology already are germinating in existing research fields. Physicist John S. Foster of IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., told conferees of his group's success in using the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope to crudely position individual molecules on a surface (SN: 2/13/88, p.106). Crystal engineer Michael D. Ward of Du Pont Co. in Wilmington, Del., reported progress in designing electrically charged molecular components that, like many large biological molecules, consistenly self-assemble into specific structures (SN: 3/8/89, p. 166). Others spoke of making proteins from scratch and of molecular versions of electronic and computer components.

Researchers admit these succeses provide but a shadowy hint of the nanotechnology envisioned by Drexler. Making nanoscale structures using Ward's methods would require stopping the self-assembly process after only a small number of components have come together, an impossible feat now. Still, Drexler says, "if the scientific argument for nanotechnology is sound, there's a lot at stake." Responsibly managed nanotechnology projects, according to Drexler and others at the conference, could include nanomachines that extract pollutants from the atmosphere or that reverse biological fiascoes such as cancer, perhaps by traveling into diseased cells and repairing them. Mismanaged or in hostile hands, nanotechnology might instead reveal itself as another word for catastrophe, warns political scientist and environmentalist Lester Milbrath of the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The mere possibility of developing such far-reaching capabilities makes nanotechnology a real issue today, says Ralph Merkle, a computer scientist at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. "We should start thinking about this technology now."
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Title Annotation:nanotechnology
Author:Amato, I.
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 4, 1989
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