Careers in Nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is one of the emerging technologies of the 21st century. Experts working in the field have grappled with the real definitions of the term, Nanotechnology.
The good old Wikipedia provides us with the broadest definition there can be about the field. It states Nanotechnology is a field of applied science focused on the design, synthesis, characterization and application of materials and devices on the nanoscale. While this definition comes close to articulating the discipline for us, it is still too generalized for us to comprehend the true dimensions of the field.
Nanoscientists and Technologists therefore face a constant challenge to communicate both the vast possibilities inherent in the field and its different applications to the non-scientific community and the layman. A meter is defined by the International Standards Organization as the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second and a nanometer by definition 10-9of a meter. It is very difficult for the human mind to imagine such dimensions, but it is exactly on this scale that Nanotechnology operates.
The decades of 1940s, 50s and 60s led to some major changes in Science and Technology. Some of the big constructions of developed states like the atomic bomb, space ships, oil tankers, bridges, interstate highways and electric power plants were built during this period. Similarly, there was another drive in Electronics that went into the opposite direction. Here, the agenda was miniaturization. The invention of the transistor radio in 1947 and the development of the first Integrated Circuit (IC) in 1959 heralded the era of electronic miniaturization.
The work on atoms had already led to the development of destructive weapons like the nuclear bomb. The work in miniaturization, as also the successful research conducted in Molecules, which led to the isolation of the DNA, opened up entirely new vistas in Engineering. During this massive state of flux in technology, Mr. Richard Feynman, well-known physicist, presented a concept paper at the American Physical Society at Caltech on December 29, 1959.
The paper titled, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom was one of the first explorations into ideas that eventually went into the development of Nanotechnology. Feynman proposed that atoms and molecules can be manipulated on a graded scale to a process by which the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules might be developed, using one set of precise tools to build and operate another proportionally smaller set, and so on down to the needed scale. In this manner, nanomachines could be utilized to build complex products and tools.
Other thinkers soon took up from where Feynman had left off and extended those ideas. One of the principal men in this endeavor was K Eric Drexler. Drexler popularized Nanotechnology through his books, The Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology and Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. The term acquired its current usage and popularity through these works by Drexler.
The work on developing ideas of Nanotechnology and the applications of it in the industry happened on a very tentative level since the 1950s. The investment of big money into Nanotechnology research happened only in the 1990s. Both private Corporates and Governments pitched in with funds to propagate research into the field. The National Nanotechnology Initiative in the U.S. was started and Japan also commenced its own huge nanotechnology program.
Presently, Nanotechnology is at a very nascent state of research and the areas of its applications are still been explored. Tim Harper, the author of the Nanotechnology Opportunity Report states that Nanotechnology acts more as an enabling technology rather than a full-fledged industry. He further states that many companies working with Nanotechnology are simply applying our knowledge of the nanoscale to existing industries, whether it is improved drug delivery mechanisms for the pharmaceutical industry, or producing nanoclay particles for the plastics industry.
Perhaps the great relevance of Nanotech can be gauged from this statement made by Thomas D. Vandermolen.
“The most important Molecular nanotechnology, when fully developed, will provide the basis for the next technological revolution, possibly the most beneficial yet disruptive in human history. By allowing inexpensive mass production with atomic-level precision, this infant technology has the potential to create whole new classes of weapons and economic, political, and social disruptions serious enough to threaten international security. In order to minimize the threats while maximizing the benefits of molecular nanotechnology’s impending development, the United States should take the lead in creating a cooperative strategy of international regulation.”
— Thomas D. Vandermolen, LCDR, USN is officer in charge, Maritime Science and Technology Center, Yokosuka, Japan.