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Foresight Update 26

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4

NASA Unit Putting Major Resources into Computational Nanotechnology

by Lew Phelps

NASA's Ames Research Center is becoming a significant force in computational molecular nanotechnology.

Al Globus of MRJ Inc. and Creon Levit of NASA, both at NASA's Numerical Aerodynamic Simulation Systems Division (NAS), lead this effort. NAS is NASA's primary supercomputer center. "NASA is putting significant resources into nanotechnology research," Globus says. "Some forms of nanotechnology appear to have enormous potential to improve aerospace and computer systems. Computational nanotechnology--the design and simulation of programmable molecular machines--is crucial to progress."

Globus and Levit were originally inspired to enter the field when computational nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle of Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) spoke on the topic at NAS on May 9, 1996. Merkle lent Globus a copy of Eric Drexler's Nanosystems. He immediately saw the potential for making very strong materials needed in aerospace applications. Merkle has worked closely with Globus and Levit since then and is impressed with the progress NAS has been making. "The NASA project is one of the most significant centers for research in computational nanotechnology in the world. Their research is making pivotal contributions to the development of molecular manufacturing," Merkle says.

Earlier this year Globus organized a workshop on computational nanotechnology (see the web version of Foresight Update 25). Since then Globus and his colleagues have been active on several fronts:

  • advancing the state of functionalized fullerenes by designing gears based on fullerene-like carbon nanotubes with benzyne rings bonded in place to create gear teeth. More recently, Globus has shown that such designs can translate rotational into linear motion, and vice versa.

For more information

  • pointing the way toward a new medium of mass data storage using hydrogen and fluorine atoms as a method of storing data. The work by Charles W. Bauschlicher, Jr. of NASA Ames and Merkle involves bonding of H or F to a rigid polymer. The molecules can be differentiated by probes, leading to the potential for creation of memory storage with capacities on the order of 1015 bytes per cm2--six orders of magnitude more storage on a single square centimeter than are now contained in a large (one gigabyte) disk drive.

For more information

  • spearheading creation of an active computational nanotechnology group at NAS. NASA has dedicated several million dollars of funding, significant computing time on its supercomputer resources, the full-time attention of three supercomputer people and part time efforts of several computational chemists to nanotechnology study.
  • establishing external research grants in computational nanotechnology leading (in the long term) to the construction of programmable molecular machines. Research topics of interest include, but are not limited to, diamondoid mechanosynthesis, self assembly, biological analogues, simulation, molecular CAD, system design and component design. Of particular interest is parallel computation using NAS computers and proposals involving close collaboration with experimentalists.
  • convening the nanotechnology section of a novel Web-based international conference on Electronic Molecular Graphics and Modeling. The October 7-18 conference will cover many areas besides nanotechnology. The nanotechnology session will feature presentations of three substantially differing gear concepts. Recognized researchers in the field have submitted numerous papers.

Globus sees real merit in a fullerene-based approach to nanotechnology. "Fullerenes are being made in the laboratory every day; they're even available in bulk quantity through commercial sources. So as we find ways to create components such as gears using fullerenes and synthetic chemistry procedures, we might be able to assemble capable nanomachines more easily than through other routes. Instead of building a car by gluing tiny bits of rubber together to form a tire, we'd have the whole tire ready to put on the assembly line. We might be able to prefabricate components that would be relatively easy to assemble into a complex machine."

NASA has recognized NASA Ames as NASA's Information Center of Excellence. This means the organization has been designated as the primary site for computational efforts. Its supercomputer capability arose from work in fluid dynamics. About a year ago, Globus and his colleagues noticed the benefits of merging that capability with the world-class computational chemists also working at NASA. Given NASA's charter as an organization that undertakes long term research with high risk, a move into computational nanotechnology seemed natural.

Not surprisingly, the payoff Globus most desires is enhanced ability to colonize space. For example, sufficiently strong cable would allow creation of an "orbital tower" --basically a long cable suspended from a geosynchronous satellite to the ground. Made from steel, such a cable would be one meter in diameter at sea level but 10 kilometers or so in diameter at its geosynchronous orbital end. That clearly is infeasible. A cable made from vastly stronger diamondoid materials, however, could be made only 22 meters wide at the "top." Sufficient carbon could be extracted from a single kilometer-diameter carbonaceous asteroid to provide all needed raw material, he calculates.

Globus and his colleagues have created a substantial World Wide Web presence discussing the broad space travel applications and more focused nanotechnological issues. It includes links to the Web-based conference. See Web Watch on page 9 of this issue of Foresight Update for details.

Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents

Rice Reports Major Advance in Creating Carbon Nanotubes

Researchers at Rice University, led by chemistry and physics professor Richard E. Smalley, have reported advances in creation of "ropes" of single-wall nanotubes, as described in Chemical and Engineering News (July 29, 1996), and commented upon in Nature (382: 207 1996). The work was published in Science (273: 483-487 1996) and a web version is available at Prof. Smalley's web site. Smalley's group has optimized a synthetic method of producing single-wall nanotubes using two different laser pulses to vaporize a graphite/metal composite rod inside a flow tube heated to 1200° C. in an oven. The metal, a 50/50 mixture of cobalt and nickel, catalyzes 70% to 90% of the carbon to form single-wall (10,10) nanotubes with a uniform diameter of 13.8Å. These "buckytubes" grew and agglomerated in the gas phase and were deposited on a cooled surface in the form of a felt mat.

"The most remarkable thing about these nanotubes is that they are in the form of ropes," of 100 to 500 nanotubes packed "precisely like toothpicks in a box," Smalley told C&EN. Single ropes have been measured to be nearly as electrically conductive as copper. The carbon (10,10) nanotube is predicted by theorists to be metallic and have optimal stiffness.

Near-term applications of the carbon nanotubes include use of a single nanotube as the tip of an atomic force microscope, Smalley said. Moreover, he's expecting his or some other lab to produce centimeter lengths of metallic nanotubes this year--only a short step from producing continuous lengths that can be wound in a spool.

Smalley's nanotubes have two major characteristics in common with structures for molecular nanotechnology: lateral scale and stiffness. Interest within the research and business communities in stiff carbon-based structures with nanometer scale critical dimensions (similar to structures that will eventually be desirable for molecular machinery) is likely to draw more R&D funding into nanotechnology-related research.

Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents

Senior Associates Gathering, Ten-Year Dinner Set Jointly

This year's Senior Associates Gathering promises more information--and more fun--than even its most successful predecessors. A separate but parallel Foresight Tenth Anniversary Reception and Dinner will celebrate a decade of success and growth of the organization. The events will be held October 18-20 in Palo Alto.

The Senior Associates Gathering is open to all Senior Associates--those who pledge donations at various levels from $250 to $5,000 a year for five years--including those who join the Senior Associates before the Gathering. Anyone interested can contact the Foresight Institute office for more information (and also see the accompanying box).

The Tenth Anniversary Dinner will be held at a separate location. The dinner party will be limited to a maximum of 70 guests to allow intense interaction and discussion between guests. The dinner cost will be $175 per plate, with an additional $100 for a separate cocktail reception preceding the dinner. Contact the Foresight office for details.

The Senior Associates gathering will be held at the Palo Alto/Stanford Holiday Inn, beginning Friday night and continuing through Sunday afternoon. Friday night includes a welcoming reception. Saturday's program will focus on technological matters:

  • discussions of computational nanotechnology, R&D progress, and the crucial question of software control.
  • hands-on Molecular Modeling--teams will learn from roaming Computer Camp instructors Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle and others.
  • the NanoOlympics, in which the teams will design and "build" simple molecular objects.
  • a Nano Web Tour, virtually exploring the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of nanotechnology online.

Sunday's sessions concentrate on communication of nanotechnology concepts and taking action:

  • a presentation of NASA's computational nanotechnology work and excellent Web site communicating its goals and results, with a strong emphasis on space exploration. (See separate story above.)
  • the nation's most Web-savvy media professional discussing "Nanotechnology in the Media," including the inside story on Foresight Institute's winning strategy in its online debate with Scientific American.
  • discussions by communications pros on savvy techniques for communicating nanotechnology concepts (or any other ideas) through the media.
  • Briefings on the status of key Foresight initiatives: the Web Upload project, College-Bound Education Project, State of the Field Report on Nanotechnology, and Web Enhancement Project.
  • Scenario-building to test alternative futures for nanotechnology, and discussion of their viability and desirability.

More Information on the 1996 Gathering

Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents


Preliminary Schedule

Foresight/IMM/CCIT Senior Associate Gathering

Palo Alto/Stanford Holiday Inn, Palo Alto, California
October 18-20, 1996
The Senior Associate meeting is off-the-record; no media coverage or taping is planned. Dress is informal.

Fri. 8 - 10 PM Welcoming Reception
Saturday Introduction to the Senior Associates Gathering
9:00 - 9:45 Foresight: Looking Back and Looking Ahead (Eric Drexler)
9:45 - 10:30 Computational Nanotechnology Takes Off (Ralph Merkle)
10:30 - 10:45 Beverage break Make Feynman Grand Prize date guesstimates
10:45 - 11:30 R&D Progress Overview (Jim Lewis, Ted Kaehler)
11:30 - Noon The $250,000 Question: When?
Noon - 1:30 South-of-the-Border Poolside Lunch
1:30 - 3:00 Hands-On Molecular Modeling
While your teammates get trained, make your personal "poster"
post it, then tour the room and see who's here
3:00 - 3:30 Dessert Break
3:30 - 4:30 Molecular Object Design Contest: the NanoOlympics
4:30 - 5:00 Nano Web Tour:
offline virtual tour of the Web's nanotechnology sites
5:00 PM Dinner on your own, in self-assembling groups
In parallel, and separate from the Senior Associate Gathering:
Foresight Tenth Anniversary Reception and Dinner (off-site)
Sunday AM Communicating nanotechnology
9:00 - 9:45 Nanotechnology and Space (Al Globus)
9:45 - 10:30 Nanotechnology in the Media
10:30 - 10:45 Beverage Break
10:45 - 11:15 Presenting Nanotechnology Information
11:15 - Noon Tales from the Front Lines of Communications
Noon - 1:30 Sunday Brunch
Sunday PM Taking Action: How you can make a difference?
1:30 - 1:50 Nanotechnology Database Project (Robert Armas)
1:50 - 2:10 Web Upload Project (Jim Lewis, Foresight Webmaster)
2:10 - 2:20 College-Bound Education Project (Elaine Tschorn)
2:20 - 2:30 "State of the Field" Report on Nanotechnology (Richard Terra)
2:30 - 3:00 Web Enhancement Project
3:00 - 3:15 Beverage Break.
Take this opportunity to give your name to leaders of projects
3:15 - 3:45 Looking Backward: Using Scenarios to Choose Action
3:45 - 4:45 Groups give capsule summaries of their scenarios
4:45 - 5:00 Review of Feynman Grand Prize date guesstimates
Gathering conclusions, requests, pats on the back, and farewells
Promises to meet again next year, same time, same place
5:00 PM End. Head for the airport, or hang around the pool and schmooze

More Information on the 1996 Gathering

Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4

From Foresight Update 26, originally published 15 September 1996.

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