Tiny developments offer big breakthroughs

by Colin Macilwain

Nano-technology – the science and engineering of materials at scales upwards from a nano-meter, comparable to the size of individual molecules – has emerged this year as Washington’s most favoured area for new investment in research.

If nano-tech enthusiasts have their way, President Clinton will announce plans in a couple of months’ time to double the US government’s annual investment in nano-technology research to around $500m a year.

But the focus of attention won’t be the microscopic machinery that much of the public associates with nano-technology. The people planning the new US initiative for Clinton don’t even see miniaturisation of equipment as a particularly significant application of nano-technology, at least in the short or medium-term.

Rather they expect the production of normal scale components to be transformed by the progress in materials and surface technology, which a fuller understanding of the nano-scale will allow.

The wear properties of car tyres, for example, are set to be transformed by the use of nano-particles of clay to bind together the loose ends of polymer molecules, resulting in vastly more durable rubbers.

Drugs firms will be able to test the four-fifths of potential drug compounds that are currently ruled out because they don’t dissolve in water: nano-particles of these compounds will sit in water in suspension, and can therefore be administered to patients.

And the physical limitations of Moore’s law, which states that the capability of microprocessors can double every 18 months, are likely to be circumvented, at least for a while, by the development of nano-scale circuitry.

To exploit this potential – or at least to show that the US government is alert to it – Clinton is expected to announce a multi-agency initiative, led by the National Science Foundation, which supports most non-biomedical university research in the US. The initiative will emphasise basic science, with the application of that science being left to private industry.

The discovery in 1988 of a new phenomenon in nano-scale physics – called giant magneto-resistance – has taken until now to be incorporated into the heads of computer disk drives, and administration officials envisage that today’s breakthroughs will also take about 10 years to yield new products.

The recent crop of breakthroughs, including the discovery of new forms of carbon, such as nano-tubes and buckyballs, have created a wave of excitement about the potential of nano-science.