Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Nanoelectronics and the Janus-face of Nano

Intel, as reported in today's New York Times, announced an overhaul of basic chip design. Industry press releases call it the "most significant change" in chip design since the development of the integrated circuit in the 1960s. They key lies in a new transistor design that uses a hafnium-based insulating layer and a metal-gate electrode (vs. silicon gate electrodes and silicon dioxide as the insulator in current designs). According to the John Markoff, the new design will allow Intel to make further incremental advances with chip features as fine as 45 nanometers.

While only time will support this claim, it is interesting to see that the announcement came out a day after the Boston Globe reported that the Cambridge City Council, following on the heels of Berkeley, was considering regulations for nanoparticle research (just as they did for recombinant DNA research c. 1976).

So here we see the two faces of nano again - the continued development of nanoscale electronics with economic implications in the 10s of billions of dollars and policy makers' continued fixation on EHS issues. This is not to say that EHS issues are not worth considering...but is the obsession on EHS concerns, which seems largely an inside-the-Beltway phenomenon, at the neglect of other issues the best way to proceed?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

New Chip Design Revealed

On p. A16 of this morning New York Times , there is a piece entitled "Researchers go Molecular in Design of a Denser Chip." It details work done at Caltech and UCLA led by James Heath and Fraser Stoddart that produced a memory chip roughly the size of a white blood cell. While the researchers were quick to point out that this was more proof of concept and they were unsure if it could be scaled to manufacture, the research is an exciting example of work being done in nanoelectronics. A crucial component to the device is a molecular switch which "belongs to a class of molecules known as rotaxanes."This formed the basis of the chip's ability to contain some 160,000 bits of information.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Laptops are Predictable

Science and Engineering undergraduates can get paid thousands of dollars to do summer research at other schools or even in exotic foreign universities. It builds their resume and they learn a lot. So few students are motivated enough to apply for these programs. Some of these programs have a nanotechnology theme. I wonder if they are the more popular programs? Perhaps this will say a lot about what to expect from the future.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lack of Exclusivity Stagnates Drug Science

Eight hundred million dollars is about the pricetag to develop a new small molecule drug. Small molecule means a molecular weight on the order of five hundred or below. The first four hundred million is spent finding a candidate molecule. The second four hundred is spent making sure it is safe by carrying out randomized clinical trials. If there is any industry that will not adopt new technology without assured exclusivity, it is the pharmaceutical industry. They want to get a return on their investment, billions of dollars worth. ScuttleMonkey reports on Slashdot that an excellent cancer drug candidate, dichloroacetate, may never be advanced through clinical trials and into approval because no company can ensure that they will get a return on the roughly 400 million dollar investment that prooving the drug is safe would cost them. This is not just true for dichloroacetate, but also for many of other fantastic compounds. Ascofuranone is capable of treating trypanosomal infections, but it is screwed on two counts. It would be hard for a pharmaceutical company to secure exclusive production and distribution rights, and the paying market is very small.

Faster chips with nanowire switches

A team at Hewlett Packard has modeled a nanowire switch that more efficiently routes signals within computer chips. The technology, called Field Programmable Nanowire Interconnect (FPNI), allows faster processing with lower power consumption.

The technology is being heralded as a boon for maintaining Moore's Law. In April 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed that integrated circuit transistor density appeared to be doubling approximately every 18 months, and that the trend may be sustainable for at least ten more years. The trend, later dubbed "Moore's Law," actually continued much longer and through today. Nevertheless, recently, the physical limits of existing chipmaking appeared to be reaching capacity, and maintaining Moore's Law through the next decade appeared increasingly unlikely. FPNI shows promise in allowing the Moore's Law trend to continue; the nanowire switch technology provides a framework to increase transistor density by eight times.

Further basic information can be found in these articles by the Associated Press and PC World. The Hewlett Packard research appears in the journal Nanotechnology and is available online.

picture of a computer chip
photo: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Nanotech's Pioneers

I've just received my copy of The Nanotech Pioneers (S.A. Edwards, 2006). As an overview of some basic nanotech and nanoscience, the book provides a good intro. While there is some good technical description and some interesting factoids, it doesn't qualify, as an Amazon reviewer said, for one of the best (or essential) histories of nanotech. To be fair, I don't think providing a comprehensive history was Edwards' intent, at least according to the dust jacket. The book that will analyze and contextualize nano's long history remains to be written as does, for that matter, a good history of modern materials science.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Particle Police

The title of this New York Times piece is almost as cute as the graphic: "Teeny-Weeny Rules for Itty-Bitty Atom Clusters." Last month the City of Berkeley "became the first government body in the United States — and possibly anywhere, according to some analysts — to explicitly regulate businesses that make or use nanoparticles." The city was responding to an environmental impact filing by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory three years ago which declared its intention to build a "molecular foundry." Somewhat ironically, LBNL and the University of California are exempt from the statute.

The most interesting part of the piece for me was a marketing director's argument for why nanoparticles do not (yet) require regulation. Dennis Schneider, with NanoHorizons in State College, Pa., said “You can’t pump them or blow them,” (referring to his company’s products). “You have to bind them to something and drag them around, then change the binding forces to put them somewhere. Or grow them where they are going to be used.” The journalist translates this as meaning that "the nanoparticles now being used are made in such small volume and are so bound up in other material that people are not exposed to quantities worth regulating."

I don't follow the logic here. Claims both for and against nanoparticles assume tiny quantities can have big effects, and particles don't lose their properties when they are "bound" in another material: their properties are often useful (and/or potentially dangerous) only when bound in this way.

Technical insight, anyone?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Chemistry Sets in India

India is training highly skilled chemists way faster than the United States, and yet their kids do not play with chemistry sets when they are growing up. I was surprised to hear that India has few or no educational toy stores.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Nano in Space

For those of you interested in a vital connection between visionary engineering ideas and nanotechnology, watch tomorrow night's episode of Nova Science Now on PBS. It will feature a segment on ideas for a nano-enabled space elevator and "space-elevator visionary" Brad Edwards who Mary Ingram-Waters or I hope to interview this year.

Nano as an Enabling Technology and the Threat of Zombies

Nanotechnology, the study of microscopic machinery, is only in its adolescence. At present, experimental computer chips are being made that are no bigger than a molecule! One day robots that small will be able to perform tasks within the human body. These nanobots, or whatever the accepted terms will be, will one day destroy cancer cells, repair damaged tissue, even attack and destroy hostile viruses. Theoretically, there is no reason why they could not be injected by the billions into a recently infected human to identify the Solanum virus [the virus thought to turn a human into a Zombie] and eradicate it from the system. When will this technology be perfected? When will it find its way into the medical profession? When will it be updated for combating Solanum? Only time will tell. (The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, Max Brooks 2003, p.58)

There it is - nanotechology - a potential weapon (right alongside genetic warfare, radiation, electrocution, and "acid") in the fight against Zombies. Right about now you might be asking yourself why I posted the above passage here at the CNS blog, if you haven't already.

I think the above passage illustrates one of nanotechnology's more useful mechanisms - specifically that it is an enabling technology. Nanotechnology, at best an ambiguous category of potential potentials, may be used to legitimate even more ambiguous/fictitious concepts. As seen above, nano is an as-of-yet unrealized weapon for the as-of-yet unrealized threat of the Undead.

Sure, it's a rather light example. But take the idea of nano as an enabler and apply it elsewhere: for instance, nano will enable alternative launch technologies such as the space elevator; nano will enable new biotechnologies such as drug delivery mechanisms; nano will enable nanobots... and nanobots can do anything, right?


The Year in Nanotech

The December 2006 issue of Technology Review (available on-line) includes a review of the Year in Nanotech. Leading the way include developments in nano-enabled LCD screens (carbon nanotubes), advances in nanoelectronics (nanotubes and nanowires), and nanocures using polymers-plus-proteins to fight cancer.Also noted are nanowires used in handheld sensors to detect chemical weapons and biological particles.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Funding Science

Today's New York Times (p. 19) includes an article about the decrease in funding for science, especially the physical sciences. The author, William Broad, reports how Congressional failure to pass a new budget means that science agency budgets are frozen at their current levels. This, in turn, translates into a relative decline due to inflation. In short, the much-anticipated increase in science funding, especially at the NSF (the so-called "doubling") that was getting science managers excited last year has not materialized. Indeed, according to Borad, there has been movement in other direction.

The article details problems this will create for particle physicists at places like Fermi Lab and Brookhaven. However, it does discuss funding in general at the NSF which is where a good deal of federal money for nanoscience research comes from.

The article also points out that the biomedical sciences receive about 5 times (about $25 billion a year) more support than the physical sciences.

All of this raises some important questions - how much of science policy is simply about money? Does improving science mean giving scientists more money? And what does this budget stalemate mean for nanoscience research?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Nano Origins

A new book out by science writer Steven A. Edwards called The Nanotech Pioneers: Where Are They Taking Us presents a history of nanotechnology. The author focuses on the contributions of scientists and policy makers including Feynman, Roco, Drexler, and so on. The December 2006 issue of Nature Nanotechnology provides favorable discussion of the book and Amazon's page for it includes a review by someone calling it the "best history of nanotechnology ever written."

I'm still waiting for my copy and I will be curious to see who else makes an appearnce in this book and how nano's relation to more established fields like materials science is presented. Unlike the discovery of nuclear fission or the transistor, nanoscience cannot trace its origins to a discrete set of events or a few people working at one or two laboratories. Moreover, it remains to be seen which scientific discoveries will prove seminal to the nano enterprise. I suspect these issues will continue to make tracing the history of nano quite challenging. I'll send some additional comments after I've had a chance to give it a read.