Written by Pieter Geldenhuys and Manfred Paeper.
(An abstract of the soon to be published article â€šStrategic Implications of
Nanotechnology in South African Textile Manufacturingâ€› in the South African Business Review)
Everything we see around us is made up of atoms – the elemental building blocks of matter. The major technological ages of humankind have been defined by what untold numbers of these atoms can do in the guise of macroscopic objects.
Nature has played the game at this level for billions of years, building stuff with atomic precision. â€šNanomachinesâ€› of DNA and RNA – perfect down to the last atom – generate the very basis of life.
â€šWe make almost everything by tearing stuff apartâ€›. For example, to make cotton fabric, we harvest and gin the bolls, blend the fibres, draw and wind it into yarn for knitting or weaving into greige. Further processing ultimately renders finished cloth for making up.
But what if we could work â€˜from the bottom upâ€™ and construct material from atoms, the smallest building blocks of matter. The idea has been percolating since 1959, when Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, gave a speech titled â€šThereâ€™s Plenty of Room at the Bottomâ€› where he argued that â€šthe principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of manoeuvring things atom by atomâ€› (Feynman, 1960:7)
Less than fifty years ago, such promise was the domain of poetic whimsy, akin to Blake writing in Auguries of Innocence of â€šSee[ing] the World in a Grain of Sandâ€› (Blake, 1800:1)
Over the ensuing years, chemists and biologists have tried to unravel the mysteries of molecular structures from the â€˜bottom up, while physicists and engineers devised ever smaller machines from the â€˜top downâ€™. Their confluence is providing an â€šepochal cross-fertilisation of knowledge â€Œ and conceptual turbulence of world viewsâ€› (Crandall, 1996:21). Atoms are incredibly small, measured in nanometres – billionths (10-9) of a metre. When IBM researchers in 1981 first saw individual atoms and molecules revealed by scanning tunnelling microscopy (STM), it â€štruly was like discovering a new worldâ€› (Gavaghan, 2000:619).
Until fairly recently it was a world that science could describe only in terms of average behaviour of a block of atoms or molecules and which could be manipulated only in bulk. In 1996, Gimzewski and colleagues succeeded in precisely positioning a single molecule. While other scientists had managed this earlier at temperatures close to absolute zero, the IBM team had done this at room temperature, an important step towards constructing a molecule with a specific function.
â€šAny intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.â€› – Albert Einstein (Harrow, 2003b:1)
Nanotechnology thus concerns itself with the directed manipulation of matter at the nanoscale.
The uses for nanotech in the short term are primarily industrial and pragmatic (Keiper, 2000). This comprises the majority of the work considered in this paper. Such thoughts are in line with that of the technology adoption life cycle, (Moore, 1991) in that the â€šchasmâ€› of the technology has yet to be breached. Thus the attributes important to â€šearly adoptersâ€› are discussed in the context of new product innovation in manufacturing rather than esoteric notions that have yet to reach anything resembling fruition.
However, the further-out vision of where nanotechnology might ultimately take us cannot be forgotten in terms of long-term strategy.
Beyond the pragmatic
Eric Drexler was one such farsighted individual, thinking beyond Feynmanâ€™s ideas in molecular-scale technology to propose a machine termed an â€˜assemblerâ€™. A very powerful principle is that if complex molecules are made with complementary surfaces, they will-self assemble to make complex structures (Lewis, 1989). To build complex structures one needs to have systematic molecular positioning to make reactions occur in very specific and complicated patterns (Drexler, 1981) The important addition is that instead of being specific, like an enzyme that can catalyse only one reaction, â€šwe are talking about things that can do programmable positioning; something that is general purpose, flexible tool for constructionâ€› and ways of driving these reactions using external sources of energy. It appears that assemblers can â€šbuild anything that makes chemical sense, and at that point the main limits will be physical lawâ€› (Drexler, 1986:10)
While much exploratory engineering leading toward that long range goal is still required. (Rietman, 2001) the impact of nanotechnology is already being felt in virtually all spheres of life and will continue to become an ever larger object on the radar screen as humanity hurtles toward tomorrow.