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History of Nanotechnology

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Richard Feynman

As is the case with many other disciplines, applications of nanotechnology (for example, in making steel and creating paintings) were in use centuries before the field was formally defined. Early contributors to the field include James Clark Maxwell (Scottish physicist and mathematician, 1831-1879) and Richard Adolf Zsigmondy (Austrian-German chemist, 1865-1929).  Zsigmondy studied colloids (chemical mixtures where one substance is dispersed evenly throughout another) and looked at gold sols and other nanomaterials.  Other important contributors in the first half of the 20th century include Irvin Langmuir (American chemist and physicist, 1881-1957) and Katherine B. Blodgett (American physicist, 1898-1910), the first woman to get her Ph.D. studying Physics at the University of Cambridge.

The earliest systematic discussion of nanotechnology is considered to be a speech given by Richard Feynman (American physicist, 1918-1988) in 1959. It was titled: "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." In this speech Feynman discussed the importance "of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale" and how they could "tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations." He described how physical phenomena change their manifestation depending on scale, and posed two challenges: the creation of a nanoomotor, and the scaling down of letters to the size that would allow the whole Encyclopedia Britannica to fit on the head of a pin.

Scanning electron microscopy of polygonized nanotube.
Image Credit: Svetlana Dimovski,
Drexel University

The term 'nanotechnology' was used first by the Japanese scientists Norio Taniguchi (1912-1999) in a 1974 paper on production technology that creates objects and features on the order of a nanometer.  The American engineer K. Eric Drexler (b. 1955) is credited with the development of molecular nanotechnology, leading to nanosystems machinery manufacturing.

The invention of scanning tunneling microscope in the 1980s by IBM Zurich scientists and then the atomic force microscope allowed scientists to see materials at an unprecedented atomic level. The availability of more and more powerful computers around this time enabled large scale simulations of material systems using supercomputers.  These studies provided insight into nanoscale material structures and their properties. The complementary activities of modeling and simulation, atomic scale visualization and characterization, and experimental synthesis activities fueled nanoscale research activities in the 1980s.

In 1990, at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, in a small lab packed with high-tech equipment in the hills of Silicon Valley, IBM Fellow Don Eigler achieved a landmark in mankind's ability to build small structures. On September 29, 1989 he demonstrated the ability to manipulate individual atoms with atomic-scale precision, and went on to write I-B-M with individual Xenon atoms, an event likened to the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk.

Significant progress was obtained by IBM in 1990 when a team of physicists had spelled out the letters "IBM" using 35 individual atoms of xenon. Another breakthrough came in 1985 with the discovery of new shapes for molecules of carbon, known as the buckyball, which are round and consist of 60 carbon atoms. This led to the discovery of a related molecular shape known as the carbon nanotube in 1991. Carbon nanotubes are still one of the most promising areas of nanotechnology as they are about 100 times stronger than steel but just a sixth of the weight; they have unusual heat and conductivity characteristics. In parallel, studies of semiconductor nanocrystals led to the development of quantum dots, whose properties are between those of bulk semiconductors and discrete molecules.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s almost all industrialized nations created nanotechnology initiatives, leading to a worldwide proliferation of nanotechnology activities. In the U.S., the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) established an Interagency Working Group on Nanotechnology (IWGN) consisting of representatives from various government agencies including the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and NASA. The IWGN, working with academia and industry, created the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Canadian institutions include the National Institute of Nanotechnology (NINT) in Alberta, five (5) research institutes of the National Research Council in Ontario and the NanoQuebec consortium.

Model of water inside a carbon nanotube. 
Image Credit: Henry Ye, Drexel University

Activities in France include the SCS cluster in Sophia Antipolis, the Systematic cluster in the Paris region, and the global micro-nanotechnology cluster Minalogic in Grenoble. Among the initiatives in Germany is the German Government's Nano-initiative, which includes NanoMobil (for the automobile industry); NanoLux (for the optical industry); NanoFab (for the electronics industry); Nano for Life (for life science industries); and Nano in Production (for nano materials production).  Activities in Japan have been led by MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) and METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry).  Among their many projects is the creation of the Nanotechnology Researchers Network. The network provides support to nanotechnology research of universities and private organizations, by making advanced and large-scale equipment owned by public organizations and certain universities -- such as high-voltage electron microscopes and nanofabrication facilities -- available for use by general researchers throughout Japan. The major focus of research across the world continues to be research on nanoscale properties, synthesis of materials and characterization, and application development to create useful devices and processes and reap economic benefits.  There is growing recognition of the importance of educating future scientists and engineers about this emerging field, as well as address safety and health aspects of nanomaterials.