So far what we have is nothing. Well, that’s not exactly true. More precisely, what we have is the initial stage of nanotech development…nuts and bolts. Nothing actually works, but, we have a lot of interesting pieces that don’t add up to anything…yet.
As an engineering problem, which all nanotechnology really is according to Dr. Drexler, we simply have to figure out a way to go to the next stage and actually build something. But, in one sense, that is only a matter of time. A lot of building blocks are out there, ready to be assembled. And they’ve all come into being quite recently. Here’s a brief timeline of the highlights…
Physicist Hans Dehmelt traps a single atom for a brief period of time inside a complex system of lasers. He names the atom “Astrid Atom.”
Dehmelt traps a particle known as a positron (one with the mass of an electron but with a positive rather than negative charge) for three months. This one he names “Priscilla Positron.”
Scientists at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, move individual atoms to create an ultra-sharp needle with a single atom at its point. It is the first time individual atoms are ever intentionally manipulated precisely to human specifications. They add and remove the atomic point as they wish and even go so far as to split the atom and arrange its molecules with a special microscope.
The world’s first artificial protein is designed and constructed at E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company in Wilmington, Delaware. William DeGrado, head of the research team states that it will eventually be possible to develop “proteinlike molecules that self-assemble into complex molecular objects, which can serve as machinery.”
Hans Dehmelt wins the Nobel Prize for Physics for his paper entitled: “A Single Atomic Particle Forever Floating at Rest in Free Space.” This paper does much more than simply prove that it is possible to manipulate microscopic elements. It fundamentally debunks the widespread assumption (even held today) that the alleged uncertainties of quantum mechanics somehow interfere with the human ability to isolate and manipulate things precisely on the atomic scale.
Researchers at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, isolate 35 xenon atoms and arrange them on a surface to spell out the letters “IBM.” Quantum uncertainty takes another direct hit.
Todd Gustavson, a high-school student in California wins the grand prize at the Santa Clara Valley Science and Engineering Fair for designing a Scanning Tunneling Microscope in his garage. The device allows for examination and potential construction of custom-made structures atom by atom. He goes on to win 25 scientific competitions and goes to Stockholm to watch Hans Dehmelt receive his Nobel Prize.
Julius Rebek creates the world’s first self-replicating molecule. J. Fraser Stoddart invents a molecular “shuttle.” Stoddart states: “The molecular shuttle is the prototype for the construction of more intricate molecular assemblers where the components will be designed to receive, store, transfer, and transmit information in a highly controllable manner, following their spontaneous self-assembly at the supramolecular level.”
IBM researchers Donald Eigler and Erhard Schweizer produce the world’s first “atomic switch,” a device that can oscillate back and forth the size of one atom.
Scientists at the University of California at Berkley create a substitute protein called “oligocarbamate.” This protein can be manipulated into some 256 different structures, each resilient and highly controllable by humans.
AT&T Bell Labs create “artificial atoms” that can be moved around by a light magnetic pulse. Ed Regis reports: “By mid-1994, the atomic realm had been colonized by a weird assortment of man-made shapes, structures, materials, and devices. There were buckyballs, nanotubes, atomic corrals, nanowires, and molecular propellers and gears.” The world of the microscopic was suddenly populated with all manner of devices designed to be the fundamental building blocks for the next phase in the evolution of nanotechnology.
Like children, humanity enters the playroom to find the floor cluttered with an assortment of alluring tinker toys. As with Moon-Watcher and the Star Child in Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel “2001”: “For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.”
(Forthcoming: Phase One Complete? 1994 - 2000. As mentioned above, nanotechnology in its initial phase is the simple molecular engineering of atoms. The next phase in the development toward a more mature technology will be to use what has been learned from engineering groups of atoms to build molecular machines. We're not that far along, yet. But, we could very well be in the transition between the initial phase and the secondary phase of nanotech development. Stay tuned for the update.)
Copyright © W. Keith Beason, 1999
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