Everything you always wanted to know about nanotechnology...

But were too afraid of quantum spookiness to ask.

Published October 20, 2005 12:45PM (EDT)

What is nanotechnology? Recent surveys indicate that most Americans don't have a clue. (The good news is that most of the rest of the world doesn't either.) Competing definitions are in circulation. The simplest, but least adequate, simply states that anyone manipulating matter at the dimensions of 100 nanometers or smaller is engaged in nanotechnology. How big is a nanometer? A billionth of a meter, but that definition doesn't mean much. If you split a human hair into a thousand equal parts, each part would be about 100 nanometers in diameter -- a nanohair, so to speak. But researchers on the frontier of nanotechnology have no interest in working with anything this bulky and cumbersome. They would argue, and quite rightly, that by the time you reach this scale most of the qualities unique to the nanoworld have either been used or lost.

A far more meaningful definition of nanotechnology is this: Nanotechnology is the set of tools necessary to design and build molecular devices with atomic precision. Molecular devices are the tiny machines that we use to construct things in the nanofuture. How big will they be? Start with atoms. Each atom is a blob of primordial universal stuff, a fraction of a nanometer in diameter. A standard baseball is about 3 inches in diameter, or about 7.5 centimeters. If we shrink this ball to one-millionth of its original size, it is now about 75 nanometers in diameter -- just below the NNI's upper limit of 100 nanometers. If we shrink it again so it's one-thousandth of the already tiny baseball, it will be less than one-tenth of a nanometer in diameter -- slightly smaller than a carbon atom (whose diameter is 0.154 nanometers, for those keeping score). For the nanoengineer, individual atoms are the components of a molecular device. In order to have moving parts, workspace, inputs, outputs, etc., a molecular device will need a few thousand atoms. This brings us back to about 100 nanometers, the generic upper size limit for nanotechnology. So why is the first definition poor and the second meaningful? The answer, like nanotechnology itself, lies outside the very limits of our physical world.

While the universe may hold wonders without end, our physical realm can be explained by a few simple yet profound rules of atomic behavior. These rules do not differ greatly from the ones envisioned by the first proponents of atom theory, the ancient Greek philosophers. The physical, or macroscopic, region of our senses and experience behaves in a manner fully consistent with this atomic theory of matter. In fact, the microscopic world of bacteria, viruses, and molecules looks just like our world, only much, much smaller. A bacterium swims in a drop of water much the way you or I swim in a pond. Actually, some swim, and some, like the intestinal bacterium E. coli, have a little propeller that looks and works a lot like an outboard motor. Bacteria, molecules, and even whole atoms are subject to the effects of heat and cold. When you fry an egg, it is the very proteins that denature and turn white. Molecules of air collide just like billiard balls, making endless bank shots off each other and the walls of the room.

Democritus of Abdera (ca. 460-370 BCE) laid down the basic principles of atomism. He proposed that atoms are separate from each other and distinguished in size, shape, position and arrangement. He further stated that atoms could overtake each other, collide, and interact to create "compound bodies." He also used atomism to formulate what we now call the law of conservation of energy (aka the first law of thermodynamics), by stating, "Nothing can be created out of nothing, nor can it be destroyed and returned to nothing." This may be the most famous and profound observation in all of science. Democritus was truly the grandfather of modern chemistry and the godfather of nanotechnology. His prescient ideas included the concepts of atomic weight, and the essential idea that atoms had chemical properties based on their size and shape. He believed that these chemical properties were responsible for material manifestations such as color and taste. His ideas were, in fact, correct -- but only for that which is atom-size or larger.

The kingdom of nanotechnology is infinitely more complex and mysterious than the atomic world first sketched out by Democritus because it spans both the atomic and the subatomic. Nanoengineers manipulate individual atoms by controlling their ability to chemically bond. But to bond, atoms must share tiny bits of themselves -- electrons. Electrons are subatomic particles, so a few rudimentary concepts from quantum mechanics must be used to characterize their behavior.

Quantum behavior is never seen in the "real" world, nor does it make logical sense. Consider one of the most famous findings of quantum mechanics, the so-called wave-particle duality. This expression refers to is the fact that all objects -- whether light or boulders -- exhibit at times a wavelike nature, at other times a particle-like nature. Electrons, for example, must behave like both waves and particles for the chemical bond to work. The intellectually challenging (not to say mind-boggling) part is that absolutely speaking, neither an electron nor any other object "is" either a particle or a wave: It simply exhibits wave or particle properties at different times.

This duality is necessary to make sense of subatomic behavior, but it would never do on the playground of life: Getting hit by a flashlight is not the same as getting hit by a flashlight beam. (Unless you have access to a subatomic-size flashlight, don't try to disprove this at home.) In order to manipulate matter one atom at a time -- that is, in order to do real nanotechnology -- it is necessary to dip below the atomic surface and capture a few denizens of the subatomic universe. We don't need to understand all the "deep things," just enough of them. And we do.

Most of us have a general understanding that once we shrink below the size of atoms things get exceedingly strange. We know the atom is made up of subatomic particles -- protons, neutrons and electrons -- and that subatomic particles follow the rules of quantum mechanics. In the quantum zone impossible things like "electron tunneling" begin to occur. This describes the phenomenon of electrons tunneling through an energy barrier and coming out on the other side without ever occupying the space in between. In our material plane, this would be equivalent to moving directly from one side of a brick wall to the other without ever passing through the wall or even the space occupied by the wall.

Another baffling example of quantum behavior is that under certain conditions, two particles will influence each other no matter how far apart they are. Quantum theory allows a single, pure quantum state -- a particular polarization, for example -- to be spread across two subatomic particles, such as a pair of simultaneously created photons. Such photons are said to be "entangled," and they remain entangled even when they fly apart. The uncanny result of this entanglement is that physically measuring one photon will instantaneously influence the properties of its twin, even if they are on opposite sides of the galaxy. Even Einstein thought this was too weird, because it violates a bedrock principle of the theory of relativity, that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Einstein said, "I cannot seriously believe in [the quantum theory] because it cannot be reconciled with the idea that physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky actions at a distance." Yet, in an experiment funded in part by a telecommunications conglomerate, quantum "spookiness" was demonstrated at distances of greater than 10 kilometers. (The headline of the Science magazine article about this was, "Quantum Spookiness Wins, Einstein Loses in Photon Test.")

A real-world application for this unreal phenomenon would be "spooky encryption," in which one entangled particle goes off into the world with your data and the other to a secure location. Anyone trying to read your electronic file would change the entangled state of both particles, setting off an alarm. But what kind of force can affect two particles at exactly the same time across light-years of space? The ultimate causes may be unknown, but the reality is that phenomena completely impossible at the human scale are completely ordinary on the quantum scale.

These issues used to be of interest only to theoretical physicists and Zen Buddhists with a scientific streak. No longer. Nanotechnology will integrate quantum mechanics directly into industrial processes.

For example, check out the carbon nanotube, possibly the most famous nanostructure. There are numerous ways to build nanotubes. The one shown here looks like a cylinder, one of the standard three-dimensional structures we learned about in geometry, right? Wrong! Because it is only one atom thick, this nanotube is considered to have properties, distinct quantum features, that are one-dimensional! For example, this single-walled carbon nanotube (SWNT) can behave as an electrical conductor, a semiconductor or a nonconductor (insulator), depending on which way individual atoms are oriented relative to the axis of the tube. In the physical realm, that would be like saying we could change a cylinder of coiled copper wire from an electrical conductor to an insulator by wrapping it in the opposite direction. Because of this and many other unusual properties, SWNTs are expected to revolutionize the most important devices in our lives -- from nanoscale transistors for our computers to neuroelectronic splices to repair (or enhance) synaptic signaling in our nervous system.

Quantum dots (Q-dots) are another hot product in the nanotech pipeline that create value by dipping below the atomic surface. Small bits of matter, often only 10 to 50 atoms, Q-dots behave as the "supersized" equivalent of a single atom. Basically, they work by "confining" electrons so that they can no longer move and propagate as waves and particles (see above). They become pure waves, and their positions and velocities take on an uncertain, probabilistic nature. This quantum confinement causes the electrons to "freak out" and emit much more energy than they would if they could use both their wave and particle properties. This is quantum behavior conveniently packaged as a piece of primal material that we can handle and work with in the physical world.

Q-dots do a lot of cool things, but one of them truly defies everyday experience. When a dot is energetically excited, the fewer number of atoms in the dot, the higher the energy and intensity of its emitted light -- smaller is brighter. In this nanoworld Tiffany's, the 1/10-carat diamond is much brighter, and worth much more, than a 10-carat stone of equal cut and clarity.

One of the high-value medical applications of Q-dots is medical imaging. Because of their ability to produce very bright light while taking up almost no space, quantum dots are already being linked to antibodies and other "magic bullets" used to hunt metastasized cancer cells. Q-dot diagnostics may even be sensitive enough to decode the mutated DNA sequence of each cancer cell, a key goal of personalized medicine. The combination of nanoscale and extreme brightness means that, theoretically, no cell could hide from Q-dot therapy and, once tagged, the dot could act as a target for laser destruction of the cancerous renegade. Only a device that spans the quantum and Newtonian worlds could create these possibilities.

And that is exactly the point. By building with individual atoms, nanoengineers will incorporate quantum behavior into their devices. Just saying you work with stuff 100 nanometers or smaller doesn't begin to get that message across. Many protein molecules, and even a few viruses, break this size barrier. By defining nanotechnology as the set of tools necessary to design and build molecular devices with atomic precision, we explicitly recognize that nanoengineering will span both the physical and quantum worlds. Once we understand this, we understand why nanotechnology will ultimately change the way everything is made, including, as the White House said, "objects not yet imagined."

All this sounds wonderful. But unknown, perhaps catastrophic, dangers may lurk in this emerging future. There is already concern about the fate of nanoscale particles inside the body, both those placed there intentionally and others arriving through the environment. Will Q-dots or other nanoparticles introduced via medical procedures have unexpected side effects? Will they, for instance, cross the blood-brain barrier more readily than normal chemotherapy agents? And what about airborne particles? Given the upper size limit of 100 nanometers, our atmosphere is already full of naturally occurring and synthetic nanoparticles (so-called ultrafines). But industrial production of SWNTs will mean that we must safely handle tons of particles with exotic chemistries and physical properties never seen before on earth.

Then there are nanotechnology's vast military applications. The key area is biodefense, which is the top R&D priority of the federal government across all agencies, far exceeding research for all diseases combined.

Violating all signed biodefense treaties, the United States has built six new "biosafety level four" (BSL4) facilities with a combined square footage far beyond our wildest needs for anything that could possibly qualify as "defense" research. The reason is that "countermeasures" cannot be built without the "measures" to test them. We are threatening to ignite the next global arms race -- not to mention creating a stockpile of substances so horrific they can scarcely be imagined -- by planning to manufacture fourth-generation recombinant DNA bioweapons, nano-enable them, and test them. As per Bush's usual M.O., there has been no consultation with anybody.

Finally, and most disturbingly of all, are the ethical issues involving subatomic manipulation of the human body. How does one draw the line between a justifiable intervention to save lives and a hubristic disruption of what it means to be human? Are we humans even capable of wielding that much power wisely? Are we in danger of engineering ourselves into a whole new species?

If nanotechnology offers to bring quantum benefits to our lives, then we must assume there will also be risks beyond the realm of our experience and imagination. Some of the deep things in science are not found; rather they are unleashed by the search itself. And they may not be our friends.

By Alan H. Goldstein

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