Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,214th Meeting

President William Saalbach called the 2,214th meeting to order at 8:18 pm December 15, 2006 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. The recording secretary read the minutes of the 2,213th meeting and they were approved.

Mr. Saalbach introduced Mihail Roco of the National Science Foundation. Mr. Roco, who is NSF’s senior advisor for nanotechnology, spoke on Nanotechnolgy.


Five years ago, Mr. Roco began, nanotechnology engendered general disbelief. Now, there is general concern about who will be the leader in the field.

Nanotechnology means control and restructuring of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 – 100 nanometers. At this level of matter, new phenomena enable new applications.

The new phenomena at nanoscale include quantum effects, large surface area, confinement, larger reactivity, and many others. There may be many ways to exploit them. For example, the surfaces of membranes with aligned carbon nanotubes are almost friction-free. Water flows through them at 100,000 times the expected speed.

At about 1 nanometer, direct observation of electron orbitals has been achieved, which is useful in understanding molecular assembling. Also molecular logic switches have been found.

In the 10-nanometer neighborhood, self-assembling quantum dots, small pyramids of molecules, have been observed. These are potentially useful for logic chips. Also at ten nanometers, the folding of proteins into precise structures has been observed.

In the range of ten – 200 nanometers, new materials of high strength and low cost have been produced, potentially useful in such things as automobile parts. Also, DNA-based nanoparticle building blocks have been produced.

An interesting possibility is the construction of nanoscale electronic circuits using self-assembling DNA synthetic strands and nanoparticles. People also are working on chemistry to synthesize components of nano machines to work on surfaces and be activated by external electromagnetic fields and light driven molecular motors. Papers on these developments are available at www.nseresearch.org.

Humans, he observed, live in the neighborhood of the meter. 107 meters is the limit of flight of satellites and 1027 is the largest known size. 10-7 meter is the lower limit of manufacturing today, and 10-27 is the smallest known size.

What is special about nanotechnology? It reaches the basic level of organization of atoms and molecules. It offers a broad technology platform for industry, medicine, and the environment, with great societal implications. It has high purpose goals, including more basic science and education, higher work efficiency, molecular medicine, and extending the limits of sustainable development.

The societal implications include:

- increasing the knowledge base, that is, having a better comprehension of nature and life

- new technologies and products. It has been estimated that products incorporating nanotechnology will, by 2015, be valued at $1 trillion

- improved healthcare, increased life-span and improved quality of life

- sustainability of agriculture, food, water, energy, materials, and environment; for example by reducing energy used in lighting

Mr. Roco sees four phases of nanotechnology in the 20 years following 2000. In 2000 we entered the first, which involved passive nanostructures such as coatings, nanoparticles, and nanostructured metals, polymers, and ceramics. In 2005 began the phase of active nanostructures, including transistors, amplifiers, targeted drugs, actuators, and adaptive structures. Phase 3 he expects to begin about 2010 and to be the phase of systems of nanosystems, with such things as guided assembling, 3D networking, new hierarchical architectures, and robotics. Phase 4 will involve molecular nanosystems, including molecular devices ‘by design,’ atomic design, and newly emerging functions.

For use in the human body, he anticipates sensors for monitoring, localized drug delivery, neural stimulation, cardiac therapies, and artificial organs. Within cells, he anticipates materials with better interactions with cell materials and scaffolds for tissue engineering.

Over 400 consumer products incorporated simple nanostructures in 2006. One example: glass for a beer bottle that will keep the beer cold. In Beijing, the new National Opera Hall will have a glass surface coated with photocatalytic nanoparticles cause dirt particles to lose cohesion. Auto companies hope to have a similar feature for paint.

Nanotubes are already quite common. What they do well includes:

- tips for nanoprobes

- field emission devices

- transistors

- sport products – bats, sticks, seats, frames rackets, skis, and so on, where they increase performance by 30 or 40 percent

- electromechanical actuators

- logic gates

- batteries

- gas storage matrices

He showed a picture of a perfectly formed diamond, a single crystal 2.5 mm high, formed by molecular control of chemical vapor deposition.

Other exciting things people are working on are:

- drugs that will, instead of distributing randomly, seek out problem cells or structures and treat them

- nanocars – devices of 2 by 3 nanometers that will move on a surface, driven by light or heat powered nanomoters

- simulated natural systems that will produce silk and cotton

- self-assembling molecules, which might be useful in treating neural disorders

Japan, Europe, and the U.S. are all investing heavily in nanotechnology. The U.S. leads in patents. The effort in China is showing a dramatic upswing. U.S. government spending by various agencies totaled $270 million in 2000 and grew to $1.3 billion by 2006, although growth has moderated in the last few years.

There are already a number of communication efforts to reach students with nanotechnology. Mr. Roco expects nanotechnology to have fundamental effects on academia, including:

- putting fundamental concepts at the beginning in education

- increasing opportunities for discovery and innovation

- bringing disciplines together

- nanoscale interdisciplinary laboratories

- multidisciplinary and international planning and collaboration.

Similarly, he expects great effects in business, including:

- competitive advantage by improved products

- new products (over half of chemical, electronic, and pharmaceutical products will involve nanotechnology by 2015)

- convergence with biomedical, electronics, and cognition

- new business models with “horizontal” information flow, science and technology clusters, and distributed production

- global governance, strong collaboration and competition

He offered to answer questions.

Someone raised a concern about nanoparticles and the immune system.

“Good news and bad news,” he said. There are no reported immune system responses to nanoparticles, and indeed there may be many similar particles in nature. However, cosmetics are not regulated in any way, so they may carry risks. Nanotubes do go into the brain, but so do other products, such as brake dust. Nanotubes are eliminated from the body in one hour.


Mr. Saalbach announced the next lecture, on “The Mystery of Iron,” by William Saalbach. He reflected that the talk we had just heard, on “Nanotechnology,” was the David Franklin Bleil Memorial Lecture in Physics. He made the parking announcement. He made a pitch for financial support of the Society. Finally, at 9:25 pm, he adjourned the 2,214th meeting to the annual business meeting.

Attendance: 63
Temperature: 7° C
Weather: Cool, breezy, relatively clear

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala
Recording secretary

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