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Nanotechnology and Nanoscience The Royal Society

Nanotechnology: views of Scientists and Engineers

Nanoengineering and Measurement

a) Definitions
The group considered the working definitions used by the main Working Group for the study. It was decided that the separation of “nanotechnology” and “nanoscience” in the definition was important. However, it was felt that the “nanotechnology” definition was too narrow in that it incorporated “top down” nanoengineering well but did not cover surface treatments and structures so well and did not capture the aspects of ultraprecision engineering, whereby objects are defined in shape to sub-100nm precision.

There was some discussion about the length scale used in the definition. It was felt that the definition should include reference to the special behaviours of materials at these length scales. It was suggested that the length scale might be smaller, maybe 10nm and below where quantum effects are observed, but this was countered on the basis that novel effects are observed in machining materials at the 100nm scale as well. The final compromise was that the length scale, although important to be included in the definition, was arbitrary and should be used in conjunction with “novel bulk or quantum (physico-chemical) effects”. It was pointed out that dimensionality was also important from a purely economic aspect – the shrinkage of semiconductor circuits being a particular case in point. Here there is no paricular advantage in terms of novel physical properties in shrinking the dimensionality, but there are very important economic consequences in so doing. It was also suggested that the effects of dimensionality on health and safety issues could be included as well as the physical properties.

b) Current State of Knowledge
One key issue identified by the group was metrology. While Atomic Force Microscopy and Scanning Probe Microscopy (collectively SPM) were led from ouside the UK, they were in a good state in the UK and Europe. However, there was a problem with repeatability of results and standards. Round robin tests conducted by NPL had shown huge amounts of variability. While a relative measurement often sufficed within a lab or organisation, there was little repeatability of results outside due to variation in the cantilever beams and equipment. The repeatable measurement of forces (for example in the study of bonding between biomolecules, such as DNA, and surfaces) was a particular case in point. It was agreed that the UK had a leading position in the establishment of traceable standards for the SPM and that NIST (USA) and PBT (Germany) were also entering this field. Such standards will be essential in moving these tools out of the science arena and into the technology arena. It was noted that SPM tools were already being used for manipulation as well as observation and would be key tools in the further development of nanoengineering.

The use of SPM as a process tool to manipulate materials and “add value through size” in the chemical industry was discussed. The essential nature of MEMS (MicroElectroMechanical Systems) as a route create massively parallel SPM’s (e.g. “Millipede”) for such applications was noted. The group saw SPM becoming an important process tool by around 2020 with this possibly heralding the real commercial revolution in nanotechnology.

Particle beam and X-ray spectroscopy were mentioned as key technologies with two out of three of the main companies supplying equipment being based in the UK. The area of ultra-precision engineering, whereby material can be removed at sub-100nm precision, was noted as an important area. For example, the whole of the semiconductor process industry is based upon the ability to manipulate device wafers to this level of precision and this was based upon the ability to machine and measure components at this level. The ability to remove material to this level of precision was also cited as being important in minimising sub-surface damage and improving system reliability in a wide range of components. The UK has a very strong position in this field.

The Group discussed what was required to make the potential process tools of the future become economic for the production. This discussion looked at the use of nanoengineering in production rather than the production of nano products per se. The consensus was that the use of MEMS as a production technology was inevitable, but scaling up of production was the key, for instance, scaling up from one device to 100 or 1,000. With this technology there was the potential to create truly green manufacturing with no waste, no solvents and very efficient use of materials.

c) Applications
It was noted during the discussions of the group that the topic area they were considering was already rich in applications (the SPM, particle beam and ultra-precision engineering industrial sectors noted above are currently generating many billions of dollars in revenue world-wide). The Group also felt that MEMS/NEMS would be among the first new applications of nanoscale engineering in the market place. This led to some discussion around market drivers for such devices and it was agreed that applications for the young would be most important with China and India becoming very important as demographic differences between there and the West kicked in the 2020 timeframe discussed. It was noted that in the microelectronic industry, a key market driver had similarly been the youth market for mobile phones and games. An example that was discussed in the field of MEMS were shape memory alloys, which were finding applications within toys, specifically to make a doll that could react to sound by moving its eyes.

Again with applications, the group considered that market forces would be important. A combination of technology push and market pull would be required. Another example discussed was mobile communications in the Far East, and China in particular, where 3G and eventually 4G would expand rapidly. For microelectronics, it was noted that the defence market had been a key driver in the 1980’s, but it was not felt that this would be a significant driver for nanotechnology. However, it was noted that the US DoD was currently a major investor in the field.
The application of MEMS to nanomanufacturing in the chemical industry was discussed, where there was a requirement to produce materials with “6?” or even “9?” reliability. Here, the ability of MEMS to be scaled-up with the high reproducibility inherent in the electronics industry was seen as being very important.

Another area where nanotechnology in general might be capable of providing important applications in the future was in the provision of clean potable water from sea-water through the use of nanoscale filtration.

This moved discussion on to strategy. The group felt that the UK did not have a strategic view on the development of nanotechnology, in contrast with its major international competitors. It was noted that the UK did organise a number of technology missions around the world and that much information was being brought back and disseminated, but the strategic vision called for had still not developed. The importance of networks was stressed with the group feeling that the nanotechnology community is not yet good at this. A significant lack of networking in the commercial arena was noted. It was felt that the lack of a research centre was a disadvantage when compared with e.g. France where Grenoble is currently a large and growing centre of excellence.

The group discussed the possibility that manufacturing in the field would inevitably move to the Far East. It was felt that although this may happen, most of the companies involved were already truly global in their outlook and were probably not thinking in terms of moving manufacture to the cheapest areas in the same way as has been seen in the past. A related issue of moving manufacture abroad was discussed briefly; that of exporting health and safety issues to countries less able to deal with them.

d) Science Fiction
There was nothing in the topic area specifically assigned to the group that could be said to be “science fiction”. The group picked-up on Drexler’s ideas as having been a source for the current hype about the field; however, Gene Rodenberry and Star Trek were also identified as other sources. The key to science fiction scare stories becoming significant was felt to be their sublimation into pop culture.

Questions as to what was physically possible were discussed. It was decided that the only way to categorically rule out any of the scare stories would be to address the issue of their possibility based on the laws of physics alone. The group did not feel it was possible to do that within the context of the time available. It was felt that it should be possible to put likely timescales on many possible developments. The idea that some sort of self-replicating “nanobots” could wreak havoc was explored, but it was felt that the complexity of such systems would mean that, even if their construction was to be physically possible, which was doubtful, their realisation was a very long way in the future. The prospect of “Jules Verne” injectable devices was felt to be very unlikely, but single nano devices with a single simple function could be envisaged. The issues of the hazards of artificially-created self-replicating systems were discussed. It was suggested that prions had already indicated that a self-replicating particle without any intelligence could cause problems, but that this was a biological particle and it could only replicate when in very specific environments. This was a far-cry from the “grey goo” hazard that seemed to be exercising the popular mind. Some aspects of bionanotechnology could generate concern, especially when combined with the prospect of self-replication. It was felt that public unease at least in part depended on the use of language in the description of technological developments. For example, some of the group felt that the term “smart” could cause public concern, being confused with artificially intelligent devices.
In summary, the group felt that the “gray goo” scenario could only be conclusively ruled out through careful analysis based upon the rigorous use of known physical laws (it is probably not sufficient to simply say “this is impossible”), but even if the technology to create self-replicating nanobots were to be physically possible, which many doubted, it would not be available until the distant future, perhaps 2080 at least.

e) Other Areas
Nanomaterials were felt to be an area with fuzzy limits. It seemed probable that most of the health and safety issues would manifest themselves here. Problems such as those with PM10s, which could be considered to be similar to nanoparticles, were recognised and understood and there seem to be potential problems with the hazards of production, use and disposal of new materials. Health and safety issues were discussed. Some attendees wondered whether carbon nanotubes and nanoparticles may have the potential to be hazardous in unpredictable ways, but it was felt that companies had learned the lessons associated with these hazards and that regulations existed to prevent the uncontrolled release of hazardous materials. A possible consideration for the working group might be whether new regulations relating specifically to nanoparticles were either necessary or desirable. Again, this could only be determined through the acquisition and application of knowledge about the systems concerned.

The group decided that the lack of a strategy for nanotechnology discussed earlier could hold up development across the board. It was also felt that there was a real need to look at what could be possible in what timescales. In order to facilitate both of these, the generation of a road map was proposed. Road maps have been used for a number years in the semi-conductor industry where they have specific goals, identifying areas where new research and development needs to be carried out to attain them. For nanotechnology, the specific goals and technologies could not at first be identified, but a general road map would give the framework onto which specific technologies and goals could be mapped.

The generality of the proposed nanotechnology road map meant that it would be helpful to consider aspects of technology push, consumer pull, control and regulation, and health and safety issues. It was suggested that such a road map could be of use to the main working group in the present study as it would help to put some of the prospective developments into a temporal context and show important potential technology linkages and potential markets. The development of a general road map for specific targets and technologies could be a recommendation of the study. The creation of such a road map would need a significant amount of resource to be allocated to it. It would also require the cooperation of the industrial concerns in the field.

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The Royal Society 2003
The Royal Academy of Engineering