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Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Brief History of Nanotechnology: Part 3 - The 80s & 90s

In our last post we looked at some very early developments in nanotechnology, including the possible impact that Richard Feynman's 1959 lecture "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" may have had on later advances in the field. It was certainly an influence on Eric Drexler, "the undisputed godfather of nanotechnology", who encountered Feynman's talk in 1979.

The 1980s saw the real emergence of nanotechnology as a field of study. The publication of Drexler's seminal book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology in 1986 marked an important milestone for the field. In the book, Drexler (unknowingly) appropriated and popularised the term "nanotechnology" itself, which had been initially defined in a slightly different context in 1974 by Tokyo Science University Professor Norio Taniguchi as "the processing of, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or by one molecule". In Engines of Creation, Drexler presented his idea of molecular manufacturing and the "molecular assembler": a "proposed device able to guide chemical reactions by positioning reactive molecules with atomic precision". Drexler's 1992 book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, published after completion of his PhD at MIT (he earned the first doctoral degree on the topic of molecular nanotechnology) continued to build on these ideas.

The 1980s also saw other important advances, including the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) in 1981 and the discovery of fullerenes in 1985. The Scanning Tunnelling Microscope, developed by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Roher at IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, allowed surfaces to be examined at the atomic level. In 1985, Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl discovered fullerenes, sometimes called buckyballs - hollow molecules composed of carbon, which helped lead to the structural assignment of carbon nanotubes. These developments meant that "nanotechnology could develop through the scientific method rather than the conceptual and thus untestable visions of Drexler", and the field as we know it today - diverse and full of possibility - was born.

Next week we'll look at some of the debates and developments that have occurred in more recent years, and get a glimpse of where nanotechnology might be headed in the future.

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