Getting Smaller — A Nanoscience Primer

 

For those who despair that conservatism will always be right but never be popular; that, however we try to win young minds, we will never appeal to young hearts; that we will simply never be cool – let me offer this consolation: I am a physicist and I have proof that coolness, or lack thereof, is not written in stone.

I am, in fact, a nanophysicist and after my last (inaugural) post, I was thrilled to see several members ask if I might say something at some point about nanotechnology. I don’t usually write about science outside of Physical Review B and the like. It is a bit daunting trying to make the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle palatable to Ricochet readers. (Though easier, I suppose, than sneaking a rant about illegal aliens into PRB).

So let me start gently, without equations, and share a couple thoughts about nanotechnology and why it is neat and important. (Problem sets will be due on Thursday and there will be no partial credit for minus sign errors).

Nanoscience is the study of objects that are too large to be treated as molecules and too small to be treated as bulk material, crystalline or otherwise. Because nanoscience falls between molecular chemistry and solid state physics, it is full of surprises not predicted by either of those theories.

An excellent example is the carbon nanotube, which is just a rolled up sheet of graphite (carbon), with the heat-carrying capacity of diamond and the tensile strength of steel. Or consider an un-rolled carbon nanotube: a single atomic layer of graphite known as “graphene.” If you suspend a sheet of graphene, clamping it around a perimeter, and place a pin, point down, onto it, you can then place an elephant on the head of the pin (don’t ask me how, I’m a physicist not an engineer). That single sheet of carbon atoms will happily support Simba and probably Nala too.

These are just two of many examples of the fascinating behavior of materials at the nanoscale. But nanoscale systems and nanotechnology would be entirely uninteresting if we could not create, manipulate, and image them. In that sense, nanotechnology is the cutting edge of science. I believe, in fact, that the progress of human civilization can be gauged by how small a thing we have been able, at various points in our history, to see and manipulate.

I heard a great illustration of this idea many years ago in a story told by a friend in graduate school. My friend told about a job that his father had had in the 1930s, shortly before the war, working in a machine tool factory. The company was fabricating drill bits and they had managed to make one that had a smaller diameter than anything they had seen before…maybe a millimeter, maybe two. This is not easy. A drill bit has to be very hard to penetrate metal and hard wood and it is difficult to make it long and slender enough while still leaving it sufficiently hard and precisely shaped.

The people at the company thought it was a big deal, so they sent out samples of their wonderful, small drill bit to other machine tool companies all over the world, accompanied by a letter boasting about what a great, tiny drill bit they had made.

A couple weeks passed. Then a small envelope arrived in the mail from a company in Germany. They opened it up and found nothing inside except their drill bit. No letter, no note, nothing…just the drill bit they had sent.

They were, of course, quite puzzled about this. Why bother to just send it back? Finally, someone took the bit, held it up like a finger, examined it closely, and noticed that there was a hole through it.

Ach du lieber Gott!

Talk about genius of understatement.

Nowadays, we can do even better.

Suppose you took a so-called “65-nm” chip, like a Pentium IV (a little old these days) and blew it up from its actual size of about 2 cm on a side to 20 km on a side. You could place it over New York City and it would cover all of Manhattan and some of Long Island and New Jersey. Stand on Madison Avenue, look down and ask “how big now is a single transistor gate length?” Answer: about 1 inch. “How precisely are the features positioned?” Answer: to about a millimeter. Stretching off as far as the eye can see.

This, my friends, is capitalism; more powerful than war itself.

When computer chips get smaller and more densely packed, they don’t just get easier to carry; they get faster. There is less distance between logic elements. And so, for much of the past 50 years, the speed of the best computer chips has doubled roughly every two years. This is known as Moore’s Law, after Gordon Moore, chairman emeritus of Intel Corporation. It is not a law really, but rather just an empirical observation/prediction. But it has held, more or less, for half a century.

The electronics industry has led the way with the technology of small things. Now, largely through those developments, just about any material can be manipulated at the nanoscale. Paints, nanoparticles for medicine, ceramics, cement, airplane wings, fabrics: all those and more are structured at the nanoscale to incorporate new properties and vastly expand the range and functionality of our material world.

The fact is, in a free society — even one as mismanaged as ours — things just get better and better.

What’s next?

Moore’s law, we are told, is about to “hit the wall.” Make electronic devices too small and single electron behavior and quantum mechanics rear their beautiful heads. And what happens next will take your breath away.

Update: As pointed out in the comments, my friend’s story seems to be part of an urban legend that pops up in scientific communities from time to time.Whether or not an incident like it actually happened or it’s just a fable, the point it illustrates is still representative of how our knowledge and abilities advance.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @FranzDrumlin

    The anecdote about the drill bit has a whiff of ‘urban legend’ about it, and I don’t care. It is a perfect example of ben trovato, well-founded even if not true. It neatly illustrates a truth about human ingenuity: it is nearly inexhaustible. That is important to keep in mind when considering potential problems like ‘climate change.’ People have a tendency to project and expand problems into the future while assuming generations to come will have to deal with them using today’s technology. We have no reason not to assume that the technologies to come will be more than equal to the task. (And yes, future technologies will bring with them new, unforeseen problems, but that’s another post . . .)

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    @HoraceSvacz

    I suppose skeptics can always argue that the benefits of this progress are distributed unequally, and that a centrally controlled economy would be better at encouraging scientific progress. For example, the soviet space program (aren’t we using their transport systems to haul stuff to the ISS?). You and I can agree that it is not true, but liberals have persuaded a large fraction of the voting public that the state can look out for everybody better than mean capitalists. The fact that science faculty all over the country vote blue, and that technology moguls do too, makes it difficult for us to adjudicate credit to the free market.

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    @Pilli

    A nano-comment:  Thanks.

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    @MattBlankenship

    This is a great post.  Thanks.

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    @ManfredArcane

    Cool stuff.  Thanks.

    Would be interested primarily in the applications of this technology.  Just as one possible example, miniature (sometimes called “nano”-) satellites – how would they benefit from this technology, if at all?

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    @ManfredArcane

    PS. If we make a “bullet-proof” vest out of the graphene sheets you mention, is it then much more “bullet-proof”, and can it then be made much lighter, by virtue of needing fewer layers?

    What about doing the same construction for say a main battle tank?

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    @GeorgeSavage

    My company‘s technology is fabricated at the micro-scale; not nano but quite a step forward for the medical world.  We have created the smallest marketed medical device, and the first composed entirely of essential dietary materials–a food-based computer, if you will.  Our ingestible sensor measures 1 x 1 x .3 mm and is biogalvanically powered.  

    The photo below shows the sensor atop a tablet for easy visualization.  In production it is invisible, compressed within the pill.  The goal is to integrate dose and response data into disease therapy, thereby addressing the >50 percent therapeutic maladherence seen across chronic conditions.

    raisin-2.jpg

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    @Midge
    Michael Stopa:

    It is a bit daunting trying to make the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle palatable to Ricochet readers.

    But might be fun. And many here would enjoy it.

     (Problem sets will be due on Thursday and there will be no partial credit for minus sign errors).

    You evil man… You’re the reason I switched from physics to math.

    Obviously, I’m just kidding. But I do remember one lecture while I was still a physics major where the prof had done this long derivation to show that two quantities were equivalent. Only, at the end, his signs didn’t match.

    His solution: just erase the offending sign and leave it at that.

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    @barbaralydick

    When I studied subatomic particle physics (undergraduate), cloud and the later spark chamber photos of the trajectories of particles were what were given us on exams to test our ability to identify the particles.  Today, those spark and cloud chambers are found in scientific museums.

    To read current articles on subatomic particles and now nanotechnology is like moving from See Spot Run immediately into a treatise on microeconomics.  But it is so fascinating that I can’t help trying.  Thanks so much for the intro.  More, please.

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    @ZinMT

    Michael,

    As one physicist to another.  Are you outed as a republican/conservative with your colleagues?  If yes, have you seen differences in how you are approached by colleagues?

    After the election in 2012, I had had enough and “came out” to my colleagues as a conservative.  Most had no idea of my conservative ideology.  In retrospect, it has made my life less stressful as I no longer had to bite my tongue at a colleague’s liberal rantings, mainly because they no longer think I am sympathetic.  However, my position as a soft-money scientist is freeing in that I am not beholden to anybody except myself and my program managers.

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    @Valiuth

    “Make electronic devices too small and single electron behavior and quantum mechanics rear their beautiful heads.”

    Ha, I was working with one of the latest Confocal Micrscopes here at the University. For those who don’t know a confocal microscope is one that uses a laser beam of a particular wavelength to scan your sample. These confocals have gotten so powerful that they are starting to run into quantum effects as well limiting their resolutions. 

    It is crazy stuff. 

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    @MerinaSmith

    Michael, I’m not worried about the problem sets and due date because you have to give me an A these days no matter how well I do on my homework, don’t you?

    Very interesting stuff, but while it is nice that things are improving in science (or not as the recent discussion of ARTs  and marriage indicates) the moral and philosophical realm becomes ever more confused.  Do you think there is a connection?

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    @DeanMurphy

    Thanks for the post, I love these kinds of things.

    I would be really interested in your explanation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  I thought, for a layman, I had a good handle on it.  But if it’s that hard to explain, maybe I don’t.

    <OCD> Simba and Nala are lions </OCD>

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    @MichaelStopa

    @Z in MT, I had dinner last night with a colleague here at MIT where I am teaching this semester. We took the seminar speaker out – a common practice. During the evening the talk turned to politics. My colleague started talking about Paul Krugman and how he was just correct and he believed everything he wrote. That was really only the beginning.

    I am new at MIT. No reason they should know my political beliefs. And of course they simply assume that anyone with a brain is liberal (my friend quoted Stephen Colbert that “the truth leans left.”)

    Here’s what I did and what I usually do in such circumstances. I did not weigh in about global warming. I defended creation science only insofar as they had asked some interesting questions (this alone provoked rather an outburst). But with regard to the stimulus, I quoted the Harvard study by Cohen et al that found that government spending crowds out the private sector, and I defended it.

    If you choose a basically free market position you can stand up easily enough. Most liberals have heard of the free market. And the whole idea makes them a little anxious.

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    @MikeRapkoch

    Michael:

    Fascinating post. However, in post #15 you noted how easily your colleague accepted Paul Krugman. I’m afraid that when it comes to politics, we can never underestimate the power of of stupidity that is human entropy.

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    @DeanMurphy
    Michael Stopa: Oops, sorry about Nala! But Simba *is* an elephant (much older than the Disney movie)! http://www.elephant.se/database2.php?elephant_id=912

    Simba was also Tarzan’s elephant: http://smbhax.com/cgi-bin/newsarchive.pl?p=762. · 2 hours ago

    Edited 2 hours ago

    Point conceded.

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    @ZinMT
    Michael Stopa: @Z in MT, I had dinner last night with a colleague here at MIT where I am teaching this semester. We took the seminar speaker out – a common practice. During the evening the talk turned to politics. My colleague started talking about Paul Krugman and how he was just correct and he believed everything he wrote. That was really only the beginning.

    I am new at MIT. No reason they should know my political beliefs. And of course they simply assume that anyone with a brain is liberal (my friend quoted Stephen Colbert that “the truth leans left.”)

    I also find that academics in the sciences are generally fairly pro-market and tend to veer away from the hard socialism and communism you see in the humanities let alone the “studies”, however they also tend to lean heavily toward Keynesian economics, which they know as whatever Paul Krugman says it is.

    The funny thing about the Stephen Colbert comment is that anyone takes Colbert seriously.  To be fair you often hear on the right that “the facts of life are conservative”.

    Let’s be honest. Reality, truth, life just are.  They don’t lean left or right. 

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    @PettyBoozswha

    Liked this post a lot and hope to see more of this kind of information at Ricochet. As a person with diabetes, I’m curious and frustrated as to how come nanotechnology can’t get rid of the need for daily finger sticks to test for blood sugar?

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    @ZinMT

    @Michael,

    By the way, I also agree with you that a person’s politics doesn’t/shouldn’t be a fully transparent part of ones professional life.  I was just curious. 

    When I was a senior in college I attended a national conference for University Honors Program students and faculty.  I attended some discussion sessions, one I remember in particular being about McCarthyism.  I came back and was railing to my family about how liberal and naive the students in the discussion were.  My grandfather, a long-time professor in the Cal State system, heard my rant and later wrote me a long letter cautioning me about being vocal with conservative politics while trying to pursue a career in academia (I was already heading to graduate school at the time).  This kind of hit me and I kept my political preferences suppressed all throughout graduate school and well into my scientific career.

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    @CuriousKevmo

    Very cool.

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    @HankRhody
    Manfred Arcane: Cool stuff.  Thanks.

    Would be interested primarily in the applications of this technology.  Just as one possible example, miniature (sometimes called “nano”-) satellites – how would they benefit from this technology, if at all? · 19 hours ago

    How much does your satellite weigh? The main application so far for Graphene, and Nanotubes generally, is in making composite bulk materials, which are lighter and stronger than the alternative. It’s not going from sailing ships to ironclads, but it’s significant.

    What does your satellite do? Does it use electronics at all? Integrated circuit chips probably comprise most of the electronics, they’re nanotechnology.

    Is it powered by solar cells? While I wouldn’t mind trimming the grants, most research into photovoltaics (and certainly any you send into space) falls under nanoscience.

    I’ve never heard of these satellites. I’m certain if you looked into it you could find more examples.

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    @HankRhody
    Manfred Arcane: PS. If we make a “bullet-proof” vest out of the graphene sheets you mention, is it then much more “bullet-proof”, and can it then be made much lighter, by virtue of needing fewer layers?

    What about doing the same construction for say a main battle tank?

    If I understand it (no guarantee) graphene’s fancy properties are dependant on it being a monocrystal. The atoms in a single grain are arranged in flat hexagons. The next grain over is also made of hexagons, but they’re at an angle. It still bonds together but those grain boundaries act as weak points. While an individual flake of graphene might support your unnamed elephant, A sheet would tear along those borders and your poor pachyderm would plummet over Niagara Falls. (Where else would you hold the demonstration?)

    The grain boundaries also disrupt the conductivity. Graphene breaks records for conducting electricity when you’re talking about across a single flake. Over longer distances it doesn’t work as well.

    None of that means it’s useless; they’re making useful composites out of it now, and research is very active. The stuff was only discovered in 2004.

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    @ManfredArcane

    I was looking for the contribution “nano-technology” could make outside the obvious realm of further miniaturization in electronics.  I want to get beyond the hype to other realworld applications.  R&D Daily is a e-newsletter I get each day that provides a wealth of news on nano-developments.  I’d like to see this filtered a bit.

    Hank Rhody

    Manfred Arcane: Cool stuff.  Thanks.

    Would be interested primarily in the applications of this technology.  Just as one possible example, miniature (sometimes called “nano”-) satellites – how would they benefit from this technology, if at all?

    How much does your satellite weigh? The main application so far for Graphene, and Nanotubes generally, is in making composite bulk materials, which are lighter and stronger than the alternative. It’s not going from sailing ships to ironclads, but it’s significant.

    What does your satellite do? Does it use electronics at all? Integrated circuit chips probably comprise most of the electronics, they’re nanotechnology.

    Is it powered by solar cells? While I wouldn’t mind trimming the grants, most research into photovoltaics (and certainly any you send into space) falls under nanoscience.

    • #23
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    @GeorgeSavage
    Petty Boozswha: Liked this post a lot and hope to see more of this kind of information at Ricochet. As a person with diabetes, I’m curious and frustrated as to how come nanotechnology can’t get rid of the need for daily finger sticks to test for blood sugar? · 36 minutes ago

    Edward Damiano, a Biomedical Engineering professor at my alma mater, Boston University, is developing an artificial pancreas.  The data he and his group have generated in clinical studies using a push/pull approach–insulin to lower blood sugar and glucagon to raise it–are truly remarkable.  I think this will work.

    You will still need a needle for CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) and hormone administration, but this promises to be a much more tolerable stopgap until a true biologic solution.

    Alternative sites for glucose sampling are problematic since the math is hard enough when working from sensed blood glucose to subcutaneously administered agents (the pancreas has the advantage of direct venous access for both sensing and delivery).  However, a nano sensor, whether cellular or fabricated, is certainly possible. 

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    @ManfredArcane

    See this is where hype becomes a problem.  The impenetrability of one layer – as imputed in the original post – would seem to be scalable up to impenetrable layers of the stuff.  The fact that the layers might easily slide over each other does not seem to make a difference, or does it?

    Hank Rhody

    Manfred Arcane: PS. If we make a “bullet-proof” vest out of the graphene sheets you mention, is it then much more “bullet-proof”, and can it then be made much lighter, by virtue of needing fewer layers?

    What about doing the same construction for say a main battle tank?

    If I understand it (no guarantee) graphene’s fancy properties are dependant on it being a monocrystal. The atoms in a single grain are arranged in flat hexagons. The next grain over is also made of hexagons, but they’re at an angle. It still bonds together but those grain boundaries act as weak points. While an individual flake of graphene might support your unnamed elephant, A sheet would tear along those borders and your poor pachyderm would plummet over Niagara Falls. (Where else would you hold the demonstration?)

    ….

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    @PettyBoozswha

    Thanks for your response.

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    @HankRhody
    Silverlock: A couple of years ago I was receiving an award on behalf of my company (CEO wasn’t available) for being a top place to work, and I was told  by the boss “you have to have a three word acceptance speech because they will charge us for everything over three words” (fund raising gimmick). It was easy: Saving Moore’s Law, which is what we are doing with our carbon nanotube (CNT) memory. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you have smart people and venture capital in an economy. Big things happen, even if they are small (note I specifically don’t name my company which prefers not to express an opinion on politics). · 10 hours ago

    I would love to hear about this carbon nanotube memory, if you can without giving away the company you work for. I can search the internet and take a guess though…

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    @MaxKnots

    Spectacular post!  My geekism has been aroused from its slumber.  Well done!

    This stuff is so much more fun than “climate science”!  And so much less political.  Perhaps that’s why it is fun?

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    @Silverlock

    A couple of years ago I was receiving an award on behalf of my company (CEO wasn’t available) for being a top place to work, and I was told  by the boss “you have to have a three word acceptance speech because they will charge us for everything over three words” (fund raising gimmick). It was easy: Saving Moore’s Law, which is what we are doing with our carbon nanotube (CNT) memory. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you have smart people and venture capital in an economy. Big things happen, even if they are small (note I specifically don’t name my company which prefers not to express an opinion on politics).

    • #29
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    @MichaelStopa

    Oops, sorry about Nala! But Simba *is* an elephant (much older than the Disney movie)! http://www.elephant.se/database2.php?elephant_id=912

    Simba was also Tarzan’s elephant: http://smbhax.com/cgi-bin/newsarchive.pl?p=762.

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