A brief update

My frequency of posting has gone down in the last couple of weeks due to a combination of excessive busy-ness and a not wholly successful attempt to catch up with stuff before going on holiday. Here’s a brief overview of some of the things I would have written about if I’d had more time.

The Nanotechnology Engagement Group (which I chair) met last week to sketch out some of the directions of its second policy report, informed in part by an excellent workshop – Terms of Engagement – held in London a few weeks ago. The workshop brought together policy-makers, practitioners of public engagement, members of the public who had been involved in public engagement events about nanotechnology, and scientists, to explore the different expectations and aspirations these different actors have, and the tensions that arise when these expectations aren’t compatible.

The UK government’s funding body for the physical sciences, EPSRC, held a town meeting to discuss its new draft nanotechnology strategy last week. About 50 of the UKs leading nanoscientists attended; To summarise the mood of the meeting, people were pleased that EPSRC was drawing up a strategy, but they thought that the tentative plan was not nearly ambitious enough. EPSRC and its Strategic Working Group on Nanotechnology (of which I am a member) will be revising the draft strategy in line with these comments and the result should be presented to EPSRC Council for approval in October.

The last two issues of Nature have much to interest the nanotechnologist. Nanotubes unwrapped introduces the idea of using exfoliated graphite as a reinforcing material in composites; this should produce many of the advantages that people hope for in nanotube composites (but which have not yet so far fully materialised) at much lower cost. Spintronics at the atomic level describes a very elegant experiment in which a single manganese atom is introduced as a substitutional dopant on a gallium arsenide surface using a scanning tunnelling microscope, to probe its magnetic interactions with the surroundings. This week’s issue also includes a very interesting set of review articles about microfluidics, including pieces by George Whitesides and Harold Craighead, to which there is free access.

Rob Freitas has put together a website for his Nanofactory collaboration. Having complained on this blog before that my own critique of MNT proposals has been ignored by MNT proponents, it’s only fair for me to recognise that this site has a section about technical challenges which explicitly acknowledges such critiques with these positive words:
“This list, which is almost certainly incomplete, parallels and incorporates the written concerns expressed in thoughtful commentaries by Philip Moriarty in 2005 and Richard Jones in 2006. We welcome these critiques and would encourage additional constructive commentary – and suggestions for additional technical challenges that we may have overlooked – along similar lines by others.”

Finally, in a not totally unrelated development, the UKs funding council, EPSRC, will be running an Ideas Factory on the subject of Matter compilation via molecular manufacturing: reconstructing the wheel. The way this program works is that participants spend a week generating new ideas and collaborations, and at the end of it £1.45 million funding is guaranteed for the best proposals. I’ve been asked to act as the director of this activity, which should take place early in the New Year.

7 thoughts on “A brief update”

  1. I’m glad you mentioned that Nanofactory site. Seems like a pretty ambitious timeline: experimental diamondoid mechanosynthesis beginning around 2010, with the first prototypes of Drexlerian nanofactories appearing in the 2020s. Of course the CRN guys are like, why should it take so long?

    The thing I wonder is, on top of the questions you raised, limiting themselves to “diamondoid” is going to further restrict the solution space. It’s one thing to point to difficulties with an electric motor, but if you then further say you can’t use metals? It’s just going to make things worse.

  2. On a somewhat related topic, I’m curious what you think of the Feynman Grand Prize offered by Foresight? You have to make several copies of a bump-based adder and a sub-nanotech accuracy positioning device. Do you think this will never be possible? Possible but irrelevant? Something else?

  3. I’ve often wondered why, if the CRN people think it is so easy, they don’t just do it themselves. The one thing one can say about the people behind the nanofactory collaboration is that they are actually doing something, and I’ve no doubt their timeline will evolve to reflect their experience. As to the grand prizes, suffice to say that I think their money will be safe for another few years.

  4. Hal, your last comment deserved a more considered answer. I do think prizes are a useful way to push a field forward, but setting the goal for the prize takes some thought. I think it’s important (as always) to distinguish between ends and means; a prize should reward the achievement of some interesting and spectacular goal, but it shouldn’t unduly constrain the means by which that goal is achieved. A prize for putting a computing device in a 50 nm cube is a great idea, but why should one specify that it has to be a bump-based adder? In fact, it should be a strength of the prize-based approach to encouraging innovation that it should prompt unexpected and creative ways of solving the problem posed.

  5. Online access to the review collection on the topics of microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip in Nature is actually provided free of charge!

Comments are closed.