Foresight Update 27 (page 1)
A publication of the Foresight Institute
Table of Contents
Nanotechnologist Wins Nobel Prize in Chemistry
for Discovering Fullerenes
By Lew Phelps
Nanotechnologist Richard E.
Smalley of Rice University has been awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in
Chemistry for his discovery of buckminsterfullerenes, the complex molecular
forms of carbon that resemble geodesic domes designed by architect R. Buckminster
Fuller. Named in Fuller's honor, the molecules are commonly called "buckyballs."
Fullerenes are formed when vaporized carbon condenses in an atmosphere of
The gaseous carbon is obtained, among other means, by directing an intense
pulse of laser light at a carbon surface. The released carbon atoms are
mixed with a stream of helium gas and combine to form clusters of some few
up to hundreds of atoms. The gas is then led into a vacuum chamber where
it expands and is cooled to some degrees above absolute zero. The carbon
clusters can then be analyzed with mass spectrometry.
While focusing his research on
fullerenes and related carbon molecular structures, Smalley has become recognized
as a leading researcher in molecularly precise structures. He heads the
recently formed Center for Nanoscale Science
and Technology (CNST) at Rice (described in Update
Smalley spoke at the Foresight
Institute's 1995 Nanotechnology Conference, describing the current status
of nanotechnology research at Rice. He is scheduled to be the keynote speaker
at the 1997 Conference.
18 reprinted an interview of Dr. Smalley from the Rice News,
Nov. 11, 1993, in which he said, "The idea behind nanotechnology is
ultimately, and maybe sometime very soon, to custom design the materials
around us atom by atom, much like an architect designs a building. Except
now the building materials will be atoms rather than bricks or steel beams.
When you design a building, you don't just throw a bunch of stuff down and
hope that you get lucky. You design it so the economy, function and beauty
is all completely crafted. It is an artificial object that may be artistic,
but is also built to have certain functions. The idea of nanotechnology
is to learn how to do this on the atomic scale."
In the interview, Smalley also spoke of the importance of computer modeling
to nanotechnology. "Much like when you build a bridge. Before you actually
construct it, you take this very carefully worked-out design and you submit
it to computer calculations to make sure it won't fall down. In the same
sense, when we actually get to the point that we start building things on
the nanometer scale, we'll have to be able to predict their performance.
We will have to describe this object that we're going to build somehow to
a computer. And to be able to have that computer chew on the problem and
ultimately tell us how it's going to work...We still have a long way to
go in calculating the behavior of atoms when they stick together in various
structures... However, a lot of progress has been made, an amazing amount,
in the past 30 years. And we're getting close."
Today research at Rice's CNST is focused upon a major transition away from
the study of fullerene clusters levitated in the gas phase. "The new
direction insists that the objects of study survive when exposed to the
real world while remaining well defined on the nanometer scale. The object
is to develop nanoscale structures and probes for such structures,"
the CNST Web site declares.
Speaking before the Houston section of the American Society of Chemical
Engineers in January 1996, Smalley
said, "we are beginning to realize that we can find ways of tricking
nature into self assembling carbon into other fullerene-like shapes as well,
and that these new materials may well have major practical as well as theoretical
significance. In fact, it emerges that buckyball was ( and is) a sort of
Rosetta Stone of what we now realize is an infinity of new structures made
of carbon one way or another."
One example of the new direction
of Smalley's research is the nanowire - a truly metallic electrical
conductor only a few nanometers in diameter, but hundreds of microns (and
ultimately meters) in length. The objective of Smalley's research group
is to "learn how to produce such wires by, effectively, polymerizing
carbon into a continuous perfect graphene tube - a giant single fullerene
molecule. With dopant metal atoms sealed inside, these fullerene nanowires
are expected to have an electrical conductivity similar to copper's, a thermal
conductivity about as high as diamond, and a tensile strength about 100
times higher than steel.
"In addition to their wonderful bulk properties, these nanowires will
be terrific as tiny probes. Bundles long enough to hold in one's hand, but
arranged along their length in a nanoscale array, will provide a direct
connection between the macroscopic and nanoscopic worlds."
A fullerene (C70)
Smalley has posted on the World Wide Web an
article published in Nature magazine describing use of carbon
nanotubes as the tip for Scanning Force microscopes (SFMs) and Scanning
Tunneling Microscopes (STMs). "Ideally this tip should be of at least
the same molecular precision as the nanoscale object to be probed, and it
should maintain this perfection reliably in day-to-day practical use not
only under high vacuum but also in air and when probing under water,"
the article says. "Although the best of the currently available tips
[for SFM or STM] do at times achieve sub-nanometer resolution, they seldom
survive a direct 'tip crash' with the surface, and it is rarely clear just
what the atomic configuration of the tip actually is when the image is taken.
Carbon nanotubes, particularly those which are effectively fullerenes of
macroscopic length in one dimension but still intrinsically nanoscopic with
molecular perfection in the other two dimensions, may offer the ultimate
solution to this tip problem." Smalley's article reports initial successes
in using individual carbon nanotubes several microns in length as probe
tips in SFM and STM.
Smalley and colleagues also are pursuing research related to carbon nanotubes
as novel nanoscale materials and device structures. "Defect-free nanotubes
that are essentially giant, linear fullerenes are expected to have spectacular
mechanical properties, as well as electronic and magnetic properties which
are in principle tunable by varying the diameter, number of concentric shells
and chirality. Further progress toward practical materials will require
eliminating defects and other reaction products (such as amorphous carbon
and catalyst particles), maximizing the nanotube yield, and synthetic control
of tube diameter, length, chirality, and number of concentric shells,"
Smalley has vigorously advanced his view that nanotechnology must be achieved
to support the planet's rapidly growing population. For example, in a speech
delivered in late 1995 to the Board of Trustees of the University of
Dallas, Smalley concluded, "We've got to learn how to build machines,
materials, and devices with the ultimate finesse that life has always used:
atom by atom, on the same nanometer scale as the machinery in living cells.
But now we've got to learn how to extend this now to the dry world. We need
to develop nanotechnology both on the wet and dry sides. We need it urgently
to get through these next 50 years. It will be a challenge. But, I am confident
we will succeed."
For more information on Smalley's
Web site, see WebWatch on page 11.
Table of Contents - Foresight Update 27
By Lew Phelps
The headline is a pseudo-World Wide Web address (URL), but its content is
valid. As Foresight Institute celebrates the Tenth Anniversary of both the
organization and the initial publication of Eric Drexler's Engines
of Creation, more has been achieved than most participants dared
to hope a decade ago.
"Many of the things I wrote about in Engines have come to pass
much faster than anyone thought possible," Drexler said at a special
Foresight Tenth Anniversary Dinner in Palo Alto October 19. "Protein
engineering is now commonplace. High school students are assembling devices
in their basements that can manipulate individual atoms. Computational
nanotechnology -- the study of molecular nanotechnology design concepts
using computer modeling--has become feasible through the development of
better and cheaper software that runs on faster and cheaper platforms."
Another key goal of Foresight is nearing realization with significant progress
in the Web Enhancement Project,
Drexler said. The goal, espoused originally in Engines, is a fully
developed hypertext system that would allow people to insert linked comments
into documents on the World Wide Web (or similar medium). Such "back
linking" capability will facilitate the debate that will be necessary
to prepare the world for the consequences of nanotechnology.
Several proposals have been made over the years, including the Xanadu
Project and the Hyper-G Project
initiated in 1989 by Hermann Maurer at Graz University of Technology, Austria.
The latter concept has now reached commercialization with the advent of
Hyperwave, a new server software product that offers flexible advanced hypertext
capabilities while maintaining full compatibility with existing Web browsers
such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Foresight is
establishing a Hyperwave site to test and demonstrate the software's ability
to facilitate scientific debate. (See details in next
At the dinner, Eric Drexler presented commemorative awards to the Foresight
Senior Associates who have donated
or pledged at the "Friends" level of $5000 per year or more to
the Foresight general fund:
Additional awards will be given out at the larger Foresight
Conference in 1997 to major donors to the Feynman
Grand Prize, including Marc Arnold and Jim Von Ehr.
- Chris Portman, a strong supporter of Foresight and one of the first
Senior Associates from England,
- Steve Vetter of Molecular Manufacturing Enterprises, Inc., who first
suggested that Foresight initiate a Senior Associates Program, and
- Jim Von Ehr of Macromedia, a technology entrepreneur who first came
to Foresight through reading Nanosystems.
Table of Contents - Foresight Update 27
Photos from Foresight Tenth Anniversary Dinner
Supportors of Foresight Institue at 10th Anniversary Celebration
Foresight Institute Founders, Eric Drexler and Chris Peterson,are honored
at the 10th Anniversary Celebration
Eric Drexler (center) congratulating "Friends of Foresight Award"
recipients Christopher Portman (left), James Von Ehr (center) and Steve
Table of Contents - Foresight Update 27
From Foresight Update 27, originally published 30
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