Skip to Content
Considering all the hype that typically goes hand in hand with new technologies, do you think the same could soon happen to nanotechnology
Smalley: I don't think that nanotechnology is as seductive an idea as the Internet. One of the great seductive aspects about the dotcom era was that you could make money without building a big infrastructure. Nanotechnology has never been sold that way. For me it is the art and science of making stuff that does something on a nanometer scale. The verb "does" is very important. And you have to have stuff first. We've been making stuff for thousands of years. Now it's new stuff and sexier stuff but it's still stuff and you have to make it. I don't think it reaches a level of excitement for investors and start-up companies to the same extent that dotcom did during the two years of its hype. But it will be with us for a lot longer.
Nevertheless, this is a technology with plenty of economic potential.
Smalley: Yes, but there aren't many people who have put bAddresses and questions on "Pictures of the Future"ig money in nanotechnology. There is quite a bit of awareness at least with venture capitalists and investors in the U.S. that this is a place where you have to be extremely careful about investing. I don't think there has been a great flood of money. And the $600 million the U.S. government invested in this area is almost entirely in basic research. I don't think it is a large amount at all. In fact, I think it has to be increased dramatically from that level.
What's a good example of what nanotechnology can do for us?
Smalley: One of my favorite examples is a special continuous carbon nanotube that is a metallic quantum wire. This material would have the ability to transport electrical power more efficiently than copper at one-sixth the weight and in a vastly stronger fiber. With that one thingif we could make it cheaplywe could implement a worldwide electrical grid. I think this will happen and this will transform the world.
Is that part of your research?
Smalley: Very much. For over a decade now, my group has been devoted entirely to carbon nanotubes. We have been making them, studying them and trying to learn how we can use them practically. For most of this time my students have been obsessed with a particular kind of carbon nanotube that has just a single layer of carbon like a tiny soda straw. We are increasingly focusing on the challenge of spinning continuous fibers of this kind, growing them very much like a single crystal.
How long is the longest single wall nanotube your group has produced?
Smalley: Around a tenth of a millimeter. But we can spin these into continuous fibers that are many meters in length very much as you can spin a cotton fiber. To produce a quantum wire from these nanotubes, each nanotube need not be longer than a couple of microns. The electrons hop effortlessly from tube to tube. If you were to build the coil of an electric motor out of such a wire, its efficiency would be much higher. That material would have a huge impact. We're working on that. And I think it will probably be feasible within five years.
In your opinion, what areas in materials science will probably experience the most significant breakthroughs?
Smalley: It's very likely that within a couple of decades there will be very little metal in automobiles and airplanes. We will replace not only the body panels, but most of the structural components with crafted new materials that are precise down to the last atom and are largely made out of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and some ceramics.
What about other fields?
Smalley: I'm convinced that in a couple of decades the combustion engine will disappear. Instead, there will be fuel cells, which will be much cheaper. Nanotechnology will be critical for enabling this achievement. Fuel cells will burn hydrogen that is stored in a medium that we still don't know how to make. That's definitely going to happen and it will have a huge impact on humanity. Another example is computers, and all kinds of electrical devices. Moore's law will almost certainly continue if not accelerate. We will have computers with incredible power. They will even be woven into our clothes, and that will be enabled by nanoelectronics.
When do you expect the first nanotech applications to hit the market?
Smalley: There are already circuits that are made of thin plastic films that could be fabricated for a penny a copy. They will be cheap enough to stick on packages. When you roll products with these tags through a checkout counter, an electric field activates them and they tell the system they are leaving the store. Then your credit card is charged. These circuits are being made now, and this application will probably be out on a large scale within a decade.
Siemens has developed smart tags. Can you explain how they work?
Smalley: They are enabled by conducting polymers that are fabricated in minute patterns. Every one of those polymers works because the atoms within them are organized in a very special way. They were engineered on a nanometer scale. Every memory device in a computer contains a lot of nanotechnology. For example, in hard discs, storage density is increasing rapidly while costs are dropping with nanometer scale layers of magnetic materials. This is a billion dollar business and I think it's unquestionably nanotechnology.
A team of Siemens researchers has managed to make solar cells from fullerenes. Do you think this is a promising field?
Smalley: Yes, very much so. This gets me back to the energy issue. Of all the primary energy sources, only solar has the abundance we need. At present it supplies only a ridiculous fraction of the world's energy needs. We need a dramatic improvement in harvesting solar energy. Research like this is right in the critical path.
Michael Crichton has a new book that describes a really dark picture of nanotechnology where microrobots turn against their creators and attack them. Could such a thing ever happen?
Smalley: No (laughing). I'm a little reluctant to comment on the book's content because I haven't read it. I think it is science fiction. Of course, any time a researcher works on something that is able to self replicate, extreme caution must be taken. But frankly, we're not even remotely close to anything that's alive, so this is a silly question.
Shouldn't it be possible to produce nanoscale machines that build anything you want atom by atom? For example, in scanning tunneling microscopes it is possible to move atoms one by one and place them where you want. Isn't that contradictory?
Smalley: No. The focus of the discussion is on self-replicating nanobots. The problem is to build a nanobot that is not only able to manipulate atoms with such generality that it can make what you tell it to do, but that it can make a copy of itself. That means that you have to be able to control atoms in three dimensions to make all sorts of structures and you have to be able to do it with perfection.
And very fast.
Smalley: Right. So taking an atom with a scanning tunneling microscope off a molecule and sticking it on to another one is not very far down that road.
But it points in that direction.
Smalley: Yes, but imagine what happens inside a living cell. And now imagine trying to do that with some sort of manipulator arm. The more you get into it, the more you will see how incredibly challenging that is. And at the end you come to the point where you see that you don't have the finesse with your manipulators to do what you need to do. In the biological world these manipulators are called enzymes. But they are not capable of making and breaking bonds in an unlimited way. They are capable of making specifically the one structure you want to and excluding all others. The whole fantasy you have here is that you have a general computer programmable assembly tool that can make anything. And if you could do that you could make a gadget that could make a copy of itself. It would, in fact, be alive.
That's why it works in living cells but not in artificial surroundings?
Smalley: Right. I do believe that we will eventually make tiny machines that can do incredible things. But I don't believe that we will ever be able to make something that is really tiny that can also make a copy of itself. Just forget the nanoworld. Look at the regular world we live in. We have never made a robot that can build another robot from earth, air, fire and water. No robot has ever been made that can build all of its component parts and then put them together. I do believe that will be possible. The interesting question is: How small could that be? In my opinion, not at the micron scale. I've been involved for decades in making this nanometer stuff and I do have a pretty good idea that self-duplicating nanobots are not ever going to happen.
So on the whole you are optimistic?
Smalley: Absolutely. Nanotechnology will change our world. It will change energy generation . It will change information technology. It will change transportation. And I am pretty sure it will not kill us.
Interview by Norbert Aschenbrenner