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The nano spin

The visionaries think it's the next stage to human evolution. And they've sold politicians on it. Can nanotechnology possibly deliver on the hype?



Almost exactly 10 years ago this week, the scientist Eric Drexler testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about a field he believes could change the world. Scientists, he announced, could now tinker with matter on the nanometer scale -- that is, at scales equal to one billionth of a meter. At IBM just three years earlier, researchers had spelled out the company logo using 35 atoms of xenon on a plate of nickel.

As builders, humans have always constructed things from the top down -- coal, iron ore and limestone make steel, for example, which is then shaped into toasters and cars and a new set of Ping golf clubs. Nanotechnology imagined a bottom-up philosophy: atoms -- billions of them at a time -- would be assembled into shapes and unique materials of our choosing. Cheaply. Quickly.

Nanotechnology, Drexler said, is "a fundamentally different way of processing matter to make products that people want.

"If you can work with the basic building blocks of matter, you can make virtually anything, producing a much wider range of products than can be made by processes that lack this direct control of the fundamental pieces."

In theory, then, a landfill could be converted to crispy KFC. Molecular-sized nanodevices could seek out diseased cells in the body and gobble them up. The effects of aging could be halted, or reversed. The ozone could be replenished. Nanodevices could be our eyes and ears in dangerous places, seeking out anthrax, terrorists, your mother-in-law, whatever.

Drexler's testimony captivated one of the subcommittee members, Al Gore, who was just months away from becoming vice-president. "I can't remember a panel that I have found more interesting," Gore said. "What we have heard today is that there may be new technologies that can alleviate some of these problems -- if we find the resources and political will to make the long-term investment needed to develop them and if we work together nationally and internationally to deploy them."

The media ignored Drexler's testimony. In his 1995 book Nano, Ed Regis quotes an unnamed editor from Time magazine, who says smugly, "We only cover things that actually happen, not things that are just supposed to happen."

That dismissive attitude changed quickly. Later that same year, the magazine reported that the "prophets of nanotechnology insist that it may be only a few years before cell-size robots swirl through the body scraping fatty deposits off the walls of blood vessels, supercomputers-on-a-chip reproduce like tiny organisms and steel mills make alloys that metallurgists never dared dream of, atom by atom."

Time was hardly alone. In the last decade, thousands of stories touting the coming miracle of nanotechnology have been splashed across glossy magazine covers and pages of newspapers. And the hype shows no signs of abating. Just this past February, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter filed a story from Boston, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Developments in nanotechnology, the story said, had created a "growing sense of anticipation in scientific circles."

According to the story, researchers were indicating that new devices such as atom-sized nanocircuits "might make it possible to develop a generation of nanorobots that could fight disease on a molecular level, biochemical sensors that could detect a single anthrax cell and computer storage devices that could pack the contents of the Library of Congress in the space of a sugar cube."

That same week in February, President George W. Bush requested that the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a program created in 1999 under Bill Clinton, get a 17 percent funding boost in 2003, to $710 million. He even declared April 29 National Nanotechnology Day. Not quite a national holiday. Not yet, anyway.

In 1992, Drexler predicted that "large-scale" applications of nanotechnology would arrive by 2007. That's just five years away.

"There has been a good bit of hype," says Sidney Perkowitz, an Emory physics professor and author. "That image of Drexler's of little buzz saws clearing out the cholesterol in your blood vessels is so gripping that you almost can't resist it. But maybe in a way, it's unfortunate because that gave rise to this whole set of expectations. But in the last year or so, I don't hear Drexler's name so much anymore, and instead, you see real things happening."

Some of those developments are happening in Atlanta, specifically at universities such as Georgia Tech and Emory. But like any science, progress is measured in slow, halting steps. Anyone who signed on to Drexler's utopian visions may have a long wait ahead.

The only thing really new about nanotechnology is its name. Sunscreen, on the market for decades, depends on nanoparticles to block the sun's rays. Your car's catalytic converter uses a metal oxide coating just nanometers thick to help convert carbon monoxide and other pollutants into nitrogen, water and carbon dioxide. Similarly, a company in Pittsburgh, PPG Industries, sells glass coated with titanium dioxide, a whitening agent also found in toothpaste and paint. The metal reacts with the sun's rays to break down dirt and, when it rains, the water slides down the glass in a clear sheet instead of forming droplets.

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