In his famous 1959 speech "Plenty of Room at the Bottom", Richard Feynman offered a prize of $1000 "to the first guy who makes an operating electric motor - a rotating electric motor which can be controlled from the outside and, not counting the lead-in wires, is only 1/64 inch cube." Feynman had hoped his reward would stimulate some new fabrication technology but he was quite consternated when one year later, Bill McLellan, using amateur radio skills, built the motor with his hands using tweezers and a microscope (and many, many hours of fiddling around). McLellan's 2000 rpm motor weighed 250 micrograms and consisted of 13 parts. In the almost 50 years since, not only has the field of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) caught up with Feynman's bet and achieved commercial production capabilities of motors many times smaller than McLellan's, but researchers have begun exploring another level of miniaturization - nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS). Efficient actuation, the creation of mechanical motion by converting various forms of energy to rotating or linear mechanical energy, is an important - and today still frustrating - issue in designing NEMS. Research on building functional nanoscale electromechanical systems is well underway, as just demonstrated with another achievement by scientists at Caltech - the place where Feynman gave his speech and McLellan's motor still is on display.
Ion channels are proteins with a hole down their middle that are the gatekeepers for cells. Ion channels control an enormous range of biological function in health and disease. In channels with a diameter greater than 100 nm, the interaction between the channel wall and electrolyte solution hardly affects the flow of ions. When the channel diameter enters the the below-10 nm range, things change dramatically, however. Then, the interaction between the solution and channel wall starts to dominate ionic flow and ion transport through such narrow, nano-scaled channels is dominated by electrostatics. The same is true for biological ion channels where charged amino residues in the selectivity filter determine the ionic flow through the channel, along with the dielectric charge on the channel wall, and the concentrations and potential in the bulk solution. The role electrostatics play in biological pores has been confirmed by numerous mutation studies where amino acids residues in the selectivity filter were replaced by others. Ion channels have simple enough structure that they can be analyzed with the usual tools of physical science. With that analysis in hand, researchers are trying to design practical machines that use ion channels. By exploiting the electrostatics in nanochannels a group of US and Dutch scientists managed to make a diode. Like a solid-state diode allows current flow in one direction, the ionic equivalent they designed can be used to direct the flow of ions across a membrane that separates two electrolyte solutions. Now that they know how to manipulate the ion selectivity in these devices, they hope to be able one day to selectively amplify currents carried by individual chemical species - a stunning prospect for molecular nanoelectronics.
In the good old days, say 5,000 years ago, a bearing was simply the placement of tree trunks under the huge stone blocks that your worker army used to construct a pyramid. Since then, bearings have become a bit more sophisticated and are an essential part of much of today's machinery. Consequently, many kinds of bearings have been developed to suit particular purposes - sliding, rolling, fluid, or magnetic bearings, to name a few major categories. Bearings are now widely used for instance to reduce friction between shafts and axles or absorb the weight placed on moving parts and they are found in applications ranging from automobiles, trains and airplanes, computers, construction equipment, machine tools, to ceiling fans and roller skates. The same way that bearings have become an integral part of our modern world, they will also play an important role in the extremely miniaturized micro- and nanodevices of the future. Engineers will just have to come up with ingenuous ways to construct bearings at the nanoscale. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) offer one possibility. Researchers have demonstrated that the relative displacements between the atomically smooth, nested shells in multiwalled carbon nanotubes (MWCNTs) can be used as a robust nanoscale motion-enabling mechanism. Even better, a group in Switzerland has demonstrated batch fabrication of such CNT bearings is possible.
Carbon comes in many different forms, from the graphite found in pencils to the world's most expensive diamonds. In 1980, we knew of only three basic forms of carbon, namely diamond, graphite, and amorphous carbon. Then, fullerenes and carbon nanotubes were discovered and all of a sudden that was where nanotechnology researchers wanted to be. Recently, though, there has been quite a buzz about graphene. Discovered only in 2004, graphene is a flat one-atom thick sheet of carbon. Existing forms of carbon basically consist of sheets of graphene, either bonded on top of each other to form a solid material like the graphite in your pencil, or rolled up into carbon nanotubes (think of a single-walled carbon nanotube as a graphene cylinder) or folded into fullerenes. Physicists had long considered a free-standing form of planar graphene impossible; the conventional wisdom was that such a sheet always would roll up. Initially using such high-tech gadgets like pencils and sticky tape to strip chunks of graphite down to layers just one atom thick, the process has now been refined to involve more expensive instruments such as electron beam and atomic force microscopes. Despite being isolated only three years ago, graphene has already appeared in hundreds of papers. The reason scientists are so excited is that two-dimensional crystals (it's called 2D because it extends in only two dimensions - length and width; as the material is only one atom thick, the third dimension, height, is considered to be zero) open up a whole new class of materials with novel electronic, optical and mechanical properties.
One of the many fascinating concepts in nanotechnology is the vision of molecular electronics. If realized, the shift in size from even the smallest computer chip today would be staggering - a quantum leap, so to speak (literally). Look at it this way: a single drop of water contains more molecules than the billions and billions of silicon chips ever produced. Molecular electronics engineers of tomorrow might use individual molecules to perform the functions in an electronic circuit that are performed by semiconductor devices today. Don't get your hopes up, though, that your next iPod will be truly nano. Scientists today are still struggling with the most basic requirements for molecular electronics, for instance, how to precisely and reliably position individual molecules on a surface. DNA-based nanostructuring is one approach that could lead to promising results. It has already been shown that DNA could be used to structure nanoscale surfaces. Now, a team in Germany has demonstrated that nanoscale objects of very different size can be deposited simultaneously and site-selectively onto DNA-displaying surfaces, based on sequence-specific DNA-DNA duplex formation.
Finding out how much power all the computers in the U.S., not to mention the world, are using seems to be an impossible task. We tried. The latest data from the Department of Energy (DoE) for household computer use is from 2001, for office use, from 1999. This is strange because when you do some back of the envelope calculations you arrive at some pretty staggering numbers. An estimated 1 billion computers in 2008 will use some 200 billion kWh of electricity (that's roughly what all households in New York City combined use over five years), generating about 127 million tonnes of CO2 in the process. And that's just for desktop and laptop computers, not including peripherals or the billions of chips used in other electronic devices. Researchers are now proposing to build a fully mechanical computer based on nanoelectromechanical (NEMS) components that would use considerably less energy. Inspired by a classical mechanical computer design from 200 years ago, the main motivation behind constructing such a computer is threefold: (1) mechanical elements are more robust to electromagnetic shocks than current dynamic random access memory (DRAM) based purely on complimentary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology, (2) the power dissipated can be orders of magnitude below CMOS and (3) the operating temperature of such an NMC can be an order of magnitude above that of conventional CMOS. Today, such a mechanical computer is only a hypothetical device. However, any effort to reduce the power consumption of computers, and not increase them as happens with every new chip generation, seems like a worthwhile effort.
Just a few days ago we ran a Spotlight on nanobionics that addressed some of the issues of bridging the interface between electronics and biology. Today we'll take a look at some leading edge research in the field of neural engineering - an emerging discipline that uses engineering techniques to investigate the function and manipulate the behavior of the central or peripheral nervous systems. Neural engineering is highly interdisciplinary and relies on expertise from computational neuroscience, experimental neuroscience, clinical neurology, electrical engineering and signal processing of living neural tissue, and encompasses elements from robotics, computer engineering, neural tissue engineering, materials science, and nanotechnology. In order for neural prostheses to augment or restore damaged or lost functions of the nervous system they need to be able to perform two main functions: stimulate the nervous system and record its activity. To do that, neural engineers have to gain a full understanding of the fundamental mechanisms and subtleties of cell-to-cell signaling via synaptic transmission, and then develop the technologies to replicate these mechanisms with artificial devices and interface them to the neural system at the cellular level. The first steps toward precise, informative and biocompatible neural interfaces have been made already.
In case you are not old enough to remember the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man during the 1970s, the show was about an astronaut, Steve Austin, who got severely injured during a crash and became a guinea pig for bionics experiments by the CIA. In an operation that cost six million dollars, his right arm, both legs and the left eye are replaced by bionic (cybernetic) implants that vastly enhanced his strength, speed and vision. Never mind Hollywood, though, but bionics - a word formed from biology and electronics - has become a serious research field. In particular the development of artificial muscles is progressing rapidly. Nature's solution to producing fast contracting muscles is to use nanotechnology. The challenge for scientists is to mimic the intricacy of natural muscle in their artificial-muscle systems. As material scientists and engineers delve into the nanodomain, the boundaries between electronics and biology become fuzzy and this is exactly what they want: a seamless transition between the hard world of electronics and the soft world of biology.