Thursday, January 25, 2007

Picture of the day

'Dancing' quantum dot

University of Cambridge Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy Gallery, dancing quantum dot

Plan view bright field transmission electron micrograph of a germanium/silicon quantum dot in a silicon matrix. The quantum dot, grown by molecular beam epitaxy, is coherently strained due to Ge/Si crystal lattice mismatches giving rise to strain induced banding contours. The straight edge at the top left shows the Si 110 plane. Field of view is approximately 620nm wide. (click to see full sized version)

Acknowledgments: Diana Zhi, Paul Midgley, Rafal Dunin-Borkowski, Don W. Pashley, Bruce A. Joyce

Visit the University of Cambridge Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy Gallery.

I will post the others in this series over time. To see it all now, visit the Nanotechnology Now Gallery.

Quote of the day

If nanotechnology ... at maturity achieves even a fraction of its promise, it will force the reassessment of global markets and economies and industries on a scale never experienced before in human history. Imagine the emergence of a nanochip that tomorrow would deliver over 50 gigahertz of speed with the processing power of ten supercomputers for the price of a quartz watch and smaller than a key chain. What might the economic impact on the computer industry be overnight? Imagine a super strong and inexpensive material to be used for pipe insulation, construction and manufacturing that would eliminate the market for steel and plastic. How might that influence the economy?

~Dr. James Canton, CEO & Chairman, Institute for Global Futures

Muddying the waters

The History channel is rerunning a 2004 episode titled “Doomsday Tech” in which they profile 4 scenarios, including gray goo.

If you want to learn about nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing, don’t count on this program for instruction; it is both confusing and incomplete.

If, however, you want to learn more about global warming, peak oil, nuclear Armageddon, a new ice age, this looks like a good program to watch.

They point out that the “stunning level of technological progress human beings have achieved in a very short time” has a dark side “we’ve reached a pivotal moment in human history when we as a species possess technologies that could destroy us.”

Yes, gloom and doom; but what did you expect with that title?

Not all of it though: they also discuss alternate energy in the forms of wind power, solar power, tidal (wave) power, hybrid cars, geothermal and hydrogen (fuel cells), so it’s not all a bad trip.

My earlier point about not counting on this program to learn about nanotech starts with scenario #4: Gray Goo. Everybody that has paid attention to this issue knows that gray goo is more of a public perception issue rather than a scientific one. My friends at the Center for Responsible talk about this issue in depth at Grey Goo is a Small Issue ( To put it in plain terms, molecular manufacturing doesn’t need self-replicating nanorobots (a.k.a. free-floating autonomous assemblers, as was highlighted in the program).

Much more important and likely molecular manufacturing "bad news" scenarios include (but are not limited to) this list, compiled by CRN:

Economic disruption from an abundance of cheap products
Economic oppression from artificially inflated prices
Personal risk from criminal or terrorist use
Personal or social risk from abusive restrictions
Social disruption from new products/lifestyles
Unstable arms race
Collective environmental damage from unregulated products
Black market in nanotech (increases other risks)
Competing nanotech programs (increases other risks)
Attempted relinquishment (increases other risks)

Back to the program. I also find fault in the way they use “nanotechnology” and “molecular manufacturing” interchangeably, as if the terms meant the same thing. At one time they did, but the day is long since past when old-school scientists and industry co-opted the term “nanotechnology” and rewrote its definition to mean “materials in the .1 nm to 100 nm range, which often exhibit unique properties.” Whereas “molecular manufacturing” means “the building of complex structures by mechanochemical processes.”

Their descriptions (backed by background images of a nanofactory) serve only to further confuse an already confusing subject. At one moment they talk about tiny robots, and at another about super strong materials.

And not once do they talk about the nanofactory, which is featured prominently as background animations.

All in all, a very confusing portrayal of a very important topic; one which left me disappointed with an organization known for its unbiased and accurate programs.

Don’t get me wrong, I did like the information about the first three scenarios. They seem to follow conventional wisdom, and present it in no scarier terms than other portrayals I have seen and read.

One thing I took away from the program, which I watched three times, was a closing quote by Sir Martin Rees:

What we’re seeing in this century is new technologies, which produce greater risk and greater opportunities. We have to insure that we can harness the opportunities and avoid the risks of misuse.

His quote absolutely applies to molecular manufacturing.

To learn more about nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing, visit:

What is Nanotechnology? -

What are the benefits? -

What are the dangers? -

You can buy the video here or watch your listings for a repeat of the program.