Nano Inc. vs. Nano Think

Nanotechnology, long a favorite of science fiction writers, is now real enough for government money. So let the squabbling begin!

Published September 2, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

On April 20, K. Eric Drexler, the futurist who coined the term "nanotechnology," published an open letter to Richard E. Smalley, a Nobel laureate working to translate nanoscience into a sustainable business. In the letter, Drexler accused Smalley of attempting to "dismiss my work in this field by misrepresenting it" and charged that "your misdirected arguments have needlessly confused public discussion of genuine long-term security concerns."

In a followup published two months later, in the absence of any direct response from Smalley, Drexler continued to express his concerns: "I would not ordinarily raise an issue so persistently. But the question of what nanotechnology can ultimately achieve is perhaps the most fundamental issue in the field today. And your words have been remarkably effective in changing how this issue is perceived."

Both letters took as their base text an essay by Smalley in the September 2001 issue of Scientific American titled "Of Chemistry, Love and Nanobots." In the essay, Smalley directly dismissed Drexler's ambitious definition of nanotechnology: molecular manufacturing via robots made up of a few million atoms.

Smalley, a Rice University chemistry professor who co-founded Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. in 2000 to make tiny tubes of carbon molecules that look like rolled-up chicken wire, argued that the kind of miniscule robots Drexler had envisioned "will never become more than a futurist's daydream."

Drexler's "daydream" postulated a future, many decades hence, in which things would be built from their atoms up by theoretical nano-bots called "universal assemblers." Millions of such Drexlerian assemblers working in parallel would build structures as large and complex as a car or spaceship. They would start by fabricating building-block molecules of a few thousand atoms, organizing these blocks into larger units, and continuing on exponentially until the desired object was assembled a few hours or days later.

In such an unbounded Drexlerian world, everything from furniture to freeways would no longer be manufactured or built with bulk materials and toxic chemicals. Instead, they would essentially be grown out of feedstocks of carbon, oxygen, silicon and all other atomic elements. Industrial-era activities such as oil drilling, mining, paper mills, and shipping of raw materials would be history.

Such a tantalizing scenario succeeded in introducing one vision of nanotech to the world. Yet what Drexler has been talking about for 15 years is not what frontline scientists like Smalley have been pursuing for at least as long.

The type of nanotech such scientists are developing today is still in its infancy, and is crude compared to Drexler's model. Some current commercial applications -- embedding DNA-sized carbon nanotubes in plastic car parts to make them easier to paint, or using nanoparticles to polish computer chips as part of the multi-layer process used to make them -- are about as sexy as an assisted-living facility.

There's a long way between Drexler's dreams and Smalley's reality. But the very fact that there is some friction between scientists on the ground and visionaries such as Drexler is proof that nanotechnology has made impressive strides over the past decade and a half. The battle over how to define the term is not merely rhetorical. Policy makers are beginning to look closely at a fast-growing industry and billions of dollars of government funding will soon be at stake. There are immense security and environmental concerns. Nanotechnology is no longer science fiction, and both Smalley and Drexler know it.

Ray McLaughlin, chief financial officer of Carbon Nanotechnologies, Richard Smalley's Houston-based company, says that his firm is focused exclusively on making nanotubes for existing markets -- including advanced polymers, composite materials similar to Kevlar, and flat panel displays -- that present a $4 billion to $5 billion opportunity.

"We're not working on 'nanotechnology' in the broad sense," said McLaughlin, adding that Smalley had declined to comment on his flap with Drexler. "Our purpose on earth is to make these beautiful little creatures [nanotubes] in commercial quantities."

Carbon Nanotechnologies isn't alone in looking to profit from atomic-sized construction efforts. In the last few years, more than 1,000 new companies have begun working on aspects of nanotech, according to the New York-based NanoBusiness Alliance.

This new commercial camp -- call it "Nano Inc." -- is anxious to legitimize nanotech's applicability to a gun-shy financial world. They'd rather not hear too much noise about the complete transformation of industrial manufacturing (and other scarier visions, like the destruction of the entire world by rampaging nanobots.) They'd prefer to focus on the here and now, specific applications of new, molecular-sized technologies.

On the other side of the divide, Drexler's "Nano Think" faction is a preexisting, more academic group focused on a long-range vision of building and making things from molecules up.

Drexler says that his concept of nanotechnology was what political leaders had in mind when President Clinton launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2000. But as the meme of "nanotech" developed momentum, he argues that many scientists doing what he acknowledges is important cutting-edge research (even if it doesn't fit his strict definition of nanotech) simply began relabeling their work under that well-funded rubric.

Drexler further believes that many scientists who may support the promise of molecular manufacturing have been self-censoring themselves, wary of seeming like starry-eyed dreamers while the money flows to builders of "practical" nanotech.

Practical or not, Drexler's ideas are a huge, and hugely compelling, hypothesis: What if we could reverse disease and aging with nanoscale repair machines that would fix problems in every cell, replace toxic, energy-inefficient manufacturing with a green nanotopia, and make space travel as affordable and ubiquitous as automotive travel?

"Which version do you think people are going to hear more about?" quipped Mark Modzelewski, who co-founded the NanoBusiness Alliance in October 2001 and was recently named to the nanotech group of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

In Modzelewski's view, a contributing factor to the split between Drexler and Smalley is that the Foresight Institute -- the Palo Alto, Calif., nonprofit Drexler founded in 1989 -- has been more of an educational group than one active in nanotechnology development. Foresight runs conferences and awards Feynman Prizes (named after physicist Richard Feynman, whose 1959 lecture, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," is considered nano's Book of Genesis), but it hasn't done any hard scientific research on the feasibility of the nano-assemblers Drexler has described.

"That's not our job, or a fair criticism," says Christine Peterson, Foresight's president and Drexler's ex-wife.

More to the point, what Nano Inc. is probably really worrying about is that Nano Think's seemingly science-fictional ideas of "matter compilers" and molecular robots in our bloodstreams are the kind of hype that may scare the money away -- money that is just beginning to flow in a nanotech direction. Even worse, they fear that Nano Think's consideration of the dangers of nanobots could spur a moratorium on nanotech research such as one that the controversial Canadian environmental group ETC Group has already demanded.

In early July, the NanoBusiness Alliance formed a task force to address safety concerns in nanotech. At the end of the month Greenpeace issued a study calling for the nanotech industry to increase funding of environmental research.

The two camps are actually closer than their spat makes them appear to be. Even a Drexler defender, veteran venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, muddies the distinction between a nano-now and a Foresight future when he cites "the digital control of matter" as the ultimate goal of 21st century science and industry, while at the same time investing in "early" nanotech companies.

His firm, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, has invested in start-ups such as Konarka Technologies, which is aiming to harness nanoparticles to make inexpensive solar power films that can be applied to surfaces in the same way that ink is printed onto newspapers.

Meanwhile, the public seems generally unaware that Fortune 500 companies including IBM, Samsung, General Electric and DuPont are aggressively developing, and in some cases already marketing, more immediate applications of nanoscale science. Some of those projects include faster, smaller computer memory; lower-powered, longer-lasting LED lighting; and display screens for laptops, phones and PDAs made out of plastic transistors.

But what's most ironic about Smalley's criticism of Drexler's specific molecular-assembler approach is that many researchers are pursuing alternate strategies, such as the "directed self-assembly" of materials, to coax molecules to snap together into highly specific patterns, that seem distinctly "futuristic." IBM recently announced a first in this area: a material composed of two different nanoparticles that assemble themselves into a highly ordered, three-dimensional matrix. It's not exactly Drexler's molecular manufacturing, since there are no nanobots, but it is related.

And start-ups are pursuing other ways to put atoms together with relative precision. Arryx Inc. in Chicago uses holographic lasers to steer molecular materials at the microscopic and nanoscopic levels. Nano Ink, also based in Chicago, is marketing a device that can deposit molecules of virtually any material onto a smooth surface in precise locations or patterns.

Real progress in the field is obvious to anyone paying attention. Howard Lovy, news editor at "Small Times Media," a 2-year-old magazine and Web site covering the commercialization of nanotechnology, doesn't think Smalley and Drexler are really arguing with each other, or about the particular merits of molecular manufacturing, at all. [This reporter is a freelance correspondent for Small Times.]

He believes the two are really wrestling to shape public perception of, and government policy toward, nanotech. "They're doing this in a public way, because they're aiming to set the tone for what nanotech will be," says Lovy. He sees them jockeying for position in a coming battle, a fight that, like the one that continues to smolder around genetically modified food, will probably center on the potential environmental consequences of nanoparticles and materials.

In April, Peterson told a congressional committee that Foresight-flavored "advanced nanotechnology" may take decades to emerge, but, if it proves feasible, would alter the fundamentals of economics based on a scarcity of raw materials and energy.

Serendipitously, an idea bubbled up from Washington in early July that what nanotech really needed, now that Congress looks likely to pass the $2.36 billion 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act to fund a broad range of government programs, was a "Grand Challenge" on par with President Kennedy's initiative to land a man on the Moon within a decade.

Could such a long-range, focused effort -- a "Nanhattan Project" -- align the near- and far-sighted wings of the Small World?

Richard Smalley may be tightly focused on building a nanotube business, but it turns out that he has also been a vocal advocate of directing public nanoscience funding toward a great planetary challenge. He has argued that developing cheap, abundant energy with nanotechnology is the logical goal for a Nanhattan Project.

Naturally, Foresight advocates would like to see nanoscale manufacturing become the focus of such a project. The president's science advisors will review existing grand challenge ideas developed by the NNI and suggest new ones in September.

As for the feud fueling the competing visions, Small Times' Lovy says to remember that "Drexler is a futurist. He's interested in people looking back 50 or 100 years from now and thinking, 'Boy, was he right.'" Smalley, from what Lovy knows of him, is "more of a businessman."

Still, Lovy thinks the give-and-take between the two is good. "The future is not going to entail being 'for' or 'against' nanotechnology. The truth is more nuanced than that."

In a 1990 afterword to "Engines of Creation," Drexler wrote that he wasn't trying to promote nanotechnology but rather to raise awareness of its potential and consequences, including possible abuses.

He also conceded in 1986 that molecular manufacturing was probably the end product of a long evolution. "Assemblers will take years to emerge, but their emergence seems almost inevitable: Though the path to assemblers has many steps, each step will bring the next in reach, and each will bring immediate rewards. The first steps have already been taken, under the names of 'genetic engineering' and 'biotechnology.' Other paths to assemblers seem possible."

Indeed, the acceleration of technology that another futurist, Ray Kurzweil, has extensively tracked, suggests that society has historically underestimated what may lie ahead. People once couldn't imagine crossing oceans, much less communicating instantaneously with virtually anyone on the planet.

As fanciful as Drexler's nanodreams may still seem, it is almost a sure bet that the future will arrive faster than expected, and in unexpected ways.

Applying proto-nanotechnology to current business bottlenecks, while keeping minds and pocketbooks open to the molecular miracles and dangers ahead, need not be mutually exclusive efforts.

By Jack Mason

Jack Mason is a reporter for Small Times Media.

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