What is Nanotechnology

There's plenty of room at the bottom

On Dec. 29, 1959, Caltech physicist and future Nobel winner Richard P. Feynman gave an after-dinner address in Pasadena, California, to members of the American Physical Society. His talk, whimsically titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” predicted that scientists would build microscopic machines that could manipulate matter at a very small scale with engineering done at the “bottom”— i.e., the molecular level.


Dr. Richard Feyman during the Special Lecture: the Motion of Planets Around the Sun on March 13, 1964.


In “Plenty of Room,” Feynman blended speculative extrapolations of existing technological trends with ideas freely borrowed from recent developments in biology and science fiction. (Robert Heinlein’s 1942 novella Waldo was one source of inspiration.) However, Feynman himself did no research that built on his over-the-horizon speculations. The 1965 Nobel Prize he shared was for theoretical physics research on how light and matter interact at the most fundamental levels. Although popular magazines like Time and the Saturday Review reported on ideas Feynman outlined, his talk soon sank out of sight.

Its near-invisibility remained the case for more than three decades until scientists and policymakers rediscovered “Plenty of Room” and interpreted it as visionary portent for what had become known as nanotechnology. When President Bill Clinton visited Pasadena in January 2000, he gave a speech at Caltech and announced what evolved into the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Feynman-esque visions and ideas informed his address. But Clinton, of course, didn’t happen along to nanotechnology by himself.


In the 1970s, as an undergraduate at MIT, Drexler was deeply influenced by Gerard O’Neill, a Princeton professor who achieved considerable public recognition for promoting large-scale space colonies. As the excitement of the space program waned, Drexler was transfixed by the potential of new technological frontiers not beyond our planet but with the manipulation of matter at the smallest scales. In this, he was inspired by that era’s emerging technologies: biotechnology and genetic manipulation, as well as the continuing shrinkage of microelectronics.


In 1981, Drexler presented his ideas—what he initially called “molecular engineering” —in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His short article claimed that the ability to design biomolecules could lead to the manufacturing of molecular-scale devices that, in turn, could make “second-generation machines” and then eventually lead to “construction of devices and materials to complex atomic specifications.” Long on enthusiastic ideas but short on specific scientific details, Drexler’s early writings nonetheless offered an enthusiastic view of a technological future in which engineers had precise control over the material world.


After moving to Silicon Valley in 1985, Drexler completed Engines of Creation, a book summarizing his vision of the (nano)technological future. With Marvin Minsky, MIT’s artificial intelligence guru who later supervised Drexler’s Ph.D. work, providing an introduction, Engines became the canonical text for what Drexler and others had begun to commonly refer to as nanotechnology; Time called it the “nanotechnologist’s bible.”


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An Introduction to Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is defined as the study and use of structures between 1 nanometer and 100 nanometers in size. To give you an idea of how small that is, it would take eight hundred 100 nanometer particles side by side to match the width of a human hair.

While this is the most common definition of nanotechnology researchers with various focuses have slightly different definitions. 

Scientists have been studying and working with nanoparticles for centuries, but the effectiveness of their work has been hampered by their inability to see the structure of nanoparticles. In recent decades the development of microscopes capable of displaying particles as small as atoms has allowed scientists to see what they are working with.

The following illustration titled “The Scale of Things”, created by the U. S. Department of Energy, provides a comparison of various objects to help you begin to envision exactly how small a nanometer is. The chart starts with objects that can be seen by the unaided eye, such as an ant, at the top of the chart, and progresses to objects about a nanometer or less in size, such as the ATP molecule used in humans to store energy from food.

Introduction to Nanotechnology Structures

Now that you have an idea of how small a scale nanotechnologists work with, consider the challenge they face. Think about how difficult it is for many of us to insert thread through the eye of a needle. Such an image helps you imagine the problem scientists have working with nanoparticles that can be as much as one millionth the size of the thread. Only through the use of powerful microscopes can they hope to ‘see’ and manipulate these nano-sized particles.