Brave New World, Too Small to See

IMAGE: Scientists working in nanotechnology who are-building matter by re-structuring atoms

Ever try swimming with your boots on? Or threading a needle while blindfolded? How about assembling a jigsaw puzzle with both hands tied behind your back?

All of those challenges are pretty close to impossible, but they are child's play compared to what scientists are trying to accomplish in the exploding world of nanotechnology. The field involves the manipulation of matter on the atomic level, producing new materials in which the whole is much more than the sum of its parts.

It has enormous potential, not only in high tech fields like medicine and energy, but in nearly everything from your "kitchen to your space shuttle," said physicist Oleg Gang, who leads a research project at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.

"I believe we (in nanotechnology) are approximately where we were in chemistry 100 years ago," Gang said in a telephone interview.

At that time, the production of what are now basic products, like plastic and polymers, was expensive and illusive, because scientists didn't really understand the fundamental processes. But as understanding grew, so did the manufacturing techniques, and now "plastics are everywhere."

The same should happen with nanotechnology, Gang said, but right now, scientists are barely knocking at the door.

The modern obsession with building things one atom at a time was launched in an electrifying lecture given by physicist Richard Feynman at the California Institute of Technology in 1959, titled "There's plenty of room at the bottom."

Feynman challenged a roomful of scientists -- some of whom are leaders in the field today -- to work on ways to build devices by manipulating one atom at a time, thus controlling the entire process and ending up with a cheaper, better way to build just about anything. In theory, it should be possible to pour the contents of one beaker into another and have it spit out silicon chips, or candy bars, or whatever.

That classic lecture set science on a course that has turned out to be very daunting, because before Feynman's dream can be realized, scientists must first understand how nature manages to do it so easily. Living organisms, including humans, are indeed assembled from the bottom up as atoms do what the genetic code tells them to do, one at a time.

Building Crystals

That's one of the reasons Gang and his team, which includes chemists and biologists, attempted to mimic nature's way by creating a synthetic DNA (which carries the blueprint for each organism) to "talk" atoms into doing what the scientists wanted them to do.

A nanometer is only one billionth of a meter, and not too long ago the task would have been impossible because no one could "see" what they were doing at a scale that small. New imaging devices have made that possible now, to some extent, but it's still pretty hard to make atoms link up with the right atoms to form some kind of a structure.

"We don't have tweezers that small," Gang said.

But Gang's team found another way, and it has so far proven successful.

Like DNA, "you can use some bio-molecules that have specific types of interactions," he said. The process allows the scientists to encode particles to talk only to those they are supposed to talk to.

"I can assign a last name to each particle, and we can tell Smith to talk to particle Brown, but not to some other particle," Gang added. By "talking," he means linking, so that the right particles combine with the right partners to build a basic structure.

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