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image European Research News Centre > Pure Science > The nano revolution
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image The nano revolution
RTD info special FP6
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  Nanotechnologies are something of a Holy Grail for many of today's research project teams, whether they are working on inanimate matter or living organisms. Manipulating arrangements between atoms to form nanosystems – with unique physical, chemical and biological properties – opens the door to applications which mark the beginning of a truly innovative technological era.
   
   

The terms nanosciences and nanotechnologies made their first tentative appearance two decades ago. These neo-concepts owe much to the revolutionary development of the first Scanning Tunnel Microscope or STM. This invention was the first step along the road to technologies able to act at the nanoscopic level – i.e. one billionth of a metre or a nanometer, which is 80 000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – and to 'manipulating' atoms directly.

This feat achieved by two physicists, Gerd Binnig from Germany and Heinrich R÷her from Switzerland, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986, set the seal on a surprising rapprochment between fundamental research – working at the frontiers of the exploration of matter – and practical applications in a field which is growing all the time.

The key to a new world

Since that time the nanosciences have been the subject of a growing research effort. They offer an approach able to change radically the way in which scientists – physicists, chemists and biologists – have studied the atomic and molecular world. Previously the approach had been 'top down', taking reality and macroscopic laws as the point of departure to penetrate into increasingly microscopic levels. The nanosciences adopt a 'bottom-up' approach, taking atoms as the point of departure from which to 'artificially' create molecular nanosystems with very specific properties. However, this methodology poses a fundamentally new scientific challenge as it requires a command of interactions between atoms. What is more, such interactions are not governed by the principles of traditional physics but by the complex laws of quantum mechanics.

In meeting this challenge, the nanosciences bring the promise of radical change to the whole way in which our technological environment is currently designed and structured.

  • Electronics – Present microelectronic processes are progressively approaching the limits of the possible in terms of the miniaturisation of chips and increase in computing power – which would mark the end of Moore's famous Law on the exponential growth of performances. The nanotechnologies are breaking through this barrier with the promise of the molecular and quantum computer of the future.
  • The life sciences – The nanosynthesisis of the fundamental molecules of the living organism (proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, etc.) brings previously unknown possibilities in biomedicine and biopharmacy, and for the whole post-genomic sector.
  • Materials – Innovations of all kinds are possible at the industrial level. One example concerns the constructions made from carbon atom structures or fullerenes, some of which resemble a football, which could be capable of containing hydrogen and be used as nano fuel cells or nano-tubes with unique properties of mechanical resistance. Also, reinforced polymers made of nano-particles could be used to produce vehicle components offering maximum security at a reduced weight – and thus reduced energy consumption. Furthermore, applications in the field of surface treatments could make it possible to obtain quite specific physical (lubrication, hardness) or chemical (reactivity, catalytic properties) effects.
  • Machines – The dynamic properties of some atomic structures bring the prospect of nano-engines, nano-pumps and nano-propellors with remarkable benefits in terms of sustainable development and energy savings.
  • Environment – Research is already under way on nano purification systems and nano-sensors – a detection function which could be applied to all fields of metrology.


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Three questions for Harry Kroto

What do you see as the priorities for research on nanotechnologies?

Clearly with nanosciences we are entering the field of quantum physics while applications in the area of the life sciences involve biologists. But the sector most concerned is chemical research. The foundations of this new discipline lie in constructing new molecules on a nanoscopic scale. For that you need a veritable army of teachers and students trained in this new approach, and this poses particularly complex problems. There is an urgent need to increase awareness of these new areas of scientific research.

In what areas of our everyday lives could the nanotechnologies have a rapid and significant impact?

First of all on computing. We will soon be carrying around nano-PCs with a vastly improved performance compared with today's laptops. One of the fascinating properties of nanotechnologies is that they enable us to develop systems in which energy expenditure is reduced to an infinitesimal level. Then there is the field of materials – aeronautics, for example. We will be building jumbo jets which are ultra-resistant as well as being ultra-light. In medicine, the nanotechnologies will revolutionise non-invasive surgery.

How does Europe rank in this fast-growing global field of science and technology?

Our continent has a great deal of potential. Our problem, in this sector as in others, is the entrepreneurial spirit. The United States has a formidable advantage because it has a stronger tradition of SMEs which are able to take risks with the possibility of failing and then rebuilding. This must be an inspiration for us.

Sir Harry Kroto (University of Sussex, Brighton, UK) was joint winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of fullerenes.
http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Users/kroto/harry1.html

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