The grand ballroom of the boston Marriott had been packed with a standingroom-only crowd of several thousand materials scientists eager to hear Richard Smalley’s evening plenary talk on “new devices and materials from carbon.” Afterward, in a nearly empty meeting room at the hotel, the Rice University chemist looks tired and spent as he fields questions. Then suddenly he’s revitalized; he leans forward and focuses intently. The conversation has swung to one of his favorite subjects: how nanotechnology will help save the world.
There are roughly 6 billion people on Earth, Smalley points out on this November night, and research aimed at producing better, cheaper, more efficient materials will be one key to feeding and housing that population as it soars toward an eventual steady state of 10 billion or more. But the limits to how strong, conductive and intricate a material can be “are set at the nanometer scale,” he says. “The dream,” says Smalley, “is to build with that level of finesse, to make it perfect down to the last atom.” This capability, he contends, would bring smaller, more efficient batteries, stronger materials, and vastly improved and cheaper electronics.
These are no ravings from the latest trendy “futurist.” Smalley is one of the country’s most respected chemists, a 1996 Nobel laureate in chemistry, and director of a new $33 million Nanoscale Science and Technology Center at Rice. Nor is he alone. A growing number of researchers share Smalley’s conviction that controlling the structure of materials down to a few atoms or molecules will have an immense impact on everything from computing to medicine. The ability to manipulate matter an atom at a time has been the stuff of science fiction for years. But recent development of high-tech tools, especially probes sensitive enough to both image and move individual atoms and molecules, has begun to turn these fantasies into scientific reality.
During this past year, two groups of researchers have independently fabricated a transistor out of a single carbon molecule. Scientists have built prototype information storage devices with data bits as small as 50 nanometers across. Other researchers have recently made a molecule that rotates, acting as a nanowheel, as well as a rudimentary abacus with single molecules acting as the sliding beads.
These are, admittedly, laboratory novelties. And, in truth, no one really knows what will result from the emerging science. For one thing, while scientists can painstakingly make nanodevices one at a time in the lab, they still must find a rapid-and commercially feasible-way to make millions of them. They also lack reliable methods for integrating nanoscale components. But these first steps provide compelling evidence that it is possible to build working nanodevices-and they have begun to generate considerable hope (along with a fair amount of hype) that Smalley’s dream of building new materials with molecular precision will come true.