Argh. One of the basics of effective policy formulation is clear definition of terms. But when someone makes a list of today’s "Top 10 Nanotechnology Products" and defines nanotechnology as "technological developments and manipulations of nano-sized matter towards a commercial application", it makes the picture far less clear.
That’s why we were pleased to read a recent article by Andrew Woolls-King in Electronics News. He begins:
Nanotechnology is being called many things: A massive investment opportunity; an incredibly promising next generation electronics technology, and even a threat to humanity.
For the electronics sector, fabrication of chips with nanoscale (nm) features is becoming routine. Yet while semiconductor manufacturing is dealing in nanometres, it too is still to be affected by true nanotechnology -- or more accurately "molecular nanotechnology".
Molecular nanotechnology (referred to as nanotechnology for the rest of this article) means constructing materials and devices virtually one atom at a time. It’s the exact opposite of how things are made today: currently engineers take a group of limited (natural or synthetic) macroscopic materials and, for example, refine, combine and catalyse them to produce something useful. In contrast, nanotechnology constructs useful devices from individual atoms and molecules (atoms and molecules mingle and combine on an atomic scale) to make whatever material, device and (eventually) machine that’s desired.
This sort of contrast and comparison is extremely helpful. We hope other writers will follow his example.
We also were pleased that some researchers are being careful to say that the work they currently are doing is not nanotechnology.
For example, the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Chemistry has published a fact sheet about their "Mechanized Molecules" project, in which they specify:
This is not nanotechnology (at least not in the established sense of manufacturing devices at nanometer length scales from "top-down" or "bottom-up" approaches), rather we are advocating the use of molecular motion to bring about completely new types of property changes on a macroscopic scale.
Hurrah for clarity!
And three more cheers for Dr. Christoph Gerber of IBM Zurich Research Centre, who says:
Our cantilevers are 16 nm thin and 80 microns long. We have a resolution of 10-22gr. That takes us into the realm of individual atoms. We have the device, now we need to work with it. In my definition, this is still not nanotechnology. We are at a stage where we try to understand the nature of science. Our tools are micro-instruments doing nanoresearch. We aim for nanobots doing nanotechnology.
As we move closer to the time when nanotechnology research will result in exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing, urgent and meaningful discourse about effective policy will be a necessity. But that can’t be done in a fog.
It’s vital that we encourage others to use the word 'nanotechnology' in a specific way — to describe the construction of materials and devices from the bottom up with atomic precision — and make it clear that everything small is not nanotechnology.