It's a Small, Small World

"Nanotechnology" promises endless abundance courtesy of molecule-manipulating robots. Is that nuts? And do we want it?

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The skeptics had a further bit of explaining to do when in 1989, exactly 30 years after Feynman predicted it, individual atoms were in fact pinned down, moved, and bodily manipu lated despite all the obstacles. This feat was performed at the IBM Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, California, when experimenters dragged 35 individual atoms of xenon around on a surface until they spelled out the letters IBM .

Suddenly there was a burst of atomic-level creativity in laboratories all over the United States, Germany, and Japan, as hands-on researchers experienced an urgent experimental need to do things like write their names out in atoms, spell the word Peace in sulfur molecules, and draw sketches of Albert Einstein in a medium of mixed ions, all of which were accomplished within the next few months.

This was primitive stuff, admittedly, compared to what Eric Drexler was talking about. Still, it was clear that things were beginning to happen down there in the atomic depths. And it was clear that Feynman, at least, had been right all along.

In November of 1993, Rice University announced a "nanotechnology initiative." The idea was to put up a new building on the campus in Houston and populate it with nano-inclined experts from various fields and departments. Here researchers would create the founding works of the new realm: the molecules, the structures, the nanomachines of the future. The prime force behind the initiative was one Richard E. Smalley, that rarest of all birds in academic circles, a confessed admirer of Eric Drexler.

"I'm a fan of his," he said. "And in fact in my endeavors to explain to people what I thought the future was, particularly the board of governors here at Rice, I have given them copies of some of Eric's books."

That future, in Smalley's view, included nanotechnology in a fundamental way.

"Science and technology on the nanometer scale is very likely to be one of the most impor tant technologies of the 21st century. It may even be the most important.Why should we be teaching students to become scientists and engineers in the old technology? They should be part of the future."

Smalley himself hoped to be part of the future. In 1985, he and some colleagues had placed a small bit of graphite inside a laser vaporization apparatus and discovered that they'd created a strange new form of carbon.

Carbon was known to occur naturally in the form of "network solids" such as graphite and diamond. In both of those forms, each carbon atom was connected to four others, and each of those to four more, and so on, in large spread-out networks. In graphite, these networks ran in flat sheets, the layers of which slid across each other easily. In diamond, by contrast, the atoms were ordered in rigid three-dimensional cubes, the arrangement that gave diamond its hardness. For years it was thought that this was the only way in which carbon came: in long-drawn-out continuous systems.

But when Smalley and cohorts zapped some graphite in their super-duper laser beam gadget, they got a bunch of microscopic carbon marbles instead, a hitherto unknown form of the element. Sixty separate carbon atoms had somehow gotten together and joined up to compose a discrete and self-contained molecule, a tiny hollow sphere. Further examination revealed that the sphere had a soccer-ball-like shape, consisting of 32 faces: 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons. Smalley and crew named the molecule "buckminsterfullerene" ("buckyball," for short), after the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, which they closely resembled.

For several reasons, the buckyball (chemical designation: C60) caused a mania among working chemists. For one thing, the molecule had an undeniable aesthetic appeal: "It is literally the roundest of round molecules," said Smalley, "the most symmetric molecule possible in three -dimensional Euclidean space."

Second, buckyballs gave rise to some extremely unusual electrical behavior. Depending on how C60 was mixed together ("doped") with other substances, it could function as an insulator, a conductor, a semiconductor, or a superconductor. By any measure, that was a lot of ways for one and the same molecule to operate.

Third, because it was a hollow, open structure, C60 allowed other atoms to be trapped, or "caged," inside it. Accordingly, chemists now placed atoms of various elementspotassium, cesium, and even uraniuminside buckyballs, and gleefully spoke of "shrink-wrapping an atom."

The buckyball was a grand new toy in the chemists' playpen, one on which they lavished untold amounts of "research," generating some 1,400 scientific papers about it and related fullerenes in the space of a few years. "We're like kids who have just discovered Tinkertoys," said Donald Huffman of the University of Arizona.

Rick Smalley, however, wanted his "babies" to do real work. He was much excited, then, by the addition of the buckytube (a single-walled carbon pipe, also called a "nanotube") to the ranks of fullerenes. Buckytubes were anticipated to have all sorts of fantastic nameless applica tions, but Smalley himself actually came up with one: the "nanofinger," a long slender rod with which to move atoms. Put two such rods together, like tweezers, and you'd have yourself an atomic "hand."

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