Traditionally, the origins of nanotechnology are traced back to December 29, 1959, when Professor Richard Feynman (a 1965 Nobel Prize winner in physics) presented a lecture entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” during the annual meeting of the American Physical Society at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). In this talk, Feynman spoke about the principles of miniaturization and atomic-level precision and how these concepts do not violate any known law of physics. Feynman described a process by which the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules might be developed, using one set of precise tools to build and operate another proportionally smaller set, and so on down to the needed scale.
He described a field that few researchers had thought much about, let alone investigated. Feynman presented the idea of manipulating and controlling things on an extremely small scale by building and shaping matter one atom at a time. He proposed that it was possible to build a surgical nanoscale robot by developing quarter-scale manipulator hands that would build quarter-scale machine tools analogous to those found in machine shops, continuing until the nanoscale is reached, eight iterations later.
He described how the 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica could be written on the head of a pin. He imagined raised letters of black metal that could be reduced to 1/25,000 of their normal size (the size of this type). Feynman discussed how such a work could be read using an electron microscope in use at that time. The trick, he said, was to write the super small texts and scale them down without loss of resolution.
Feynman also discussed systems in nature that achieve atomic-level precision unaided by human design. Furthermore, he laid out some precise steps that might need to be taken in order to begin work in this uncharted field. These included the development of more powerful electron microscopes, key tools in viewing the very small. He also discussed the need for more fundamental discovery in biology and biochemistry.
The term "nanotechnology" was defined by Tokyo University of Science Professor Norio Taniguchi, in a 1974 paper entitled “On the Basic Concept of ‘Nano-Technology’, as follows: 'Nanotechnology' mainly consists of the processing of, separation, consolidation, and deformation of materials by one atom or by one molecule." In his paper, Taniguchi developed Feynman’s ideas in more detail stating that “Nano-technology is the production technology to get the extra high accuracy and ultra-fine dimensions, i.e., the preciseness and fineness of the order of 1 nm (nanometer) in length. He also discussed his concept of ‘nanotechnology’ in materials processing, basing this on the microscopic behavior of materials.
The main step in the development of nanotechnology was the invention of cluster science and Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) in the 1980’s. In 1981, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory created the STM that allowed scientists to see and move individual atoms for the first time. They found that by using an electrical field and a special nanoprobe with a super small tip, they could move atoms around into forms that they wanted.
|Scanning Tunneling Microscope block diagram (Wikipedia)|
In September 1985, a new kind of carbon (C60) was discovered by three innovative chemists, who came together at Rice University in Houston, Texas, to perform a set of experiments that changed chemistry and the world. The new carbon family was named the fullerenes. The fullerenes—soccer ball shaped, cage-like molecules, characterized by the symmetrical C60—soon occupied center stage in chemistry. Very different from known carbon forms like graphite and diamond, C60 (made up of 60 carbons) was officially named Buckminster fullerene (also called the buckyball). The buckyball was so named because of the resemblance to the geodesic domes that the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller popularized.
Buckminster fullerene (Wikipedia)
The basic ideas is this field were popularized and explored in much more depth in the 1980's, when K. Eric Drexler promoted the technological significance of nano-scale phenomena and devices through speeches and the books Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986) and Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation.
K. Eric Drexler
He talked about building machines on the scale of molecules, a few nanometers wide—motors, robot arms, and even whole computers, far smaller than a cell. Drexler spent the most of his time ever since describing and analyzing these incredible devices, and responding to accusations of science fiction.
Aimed at a non-technical audience while also appealing to scientists, Drexler’s book was a highly original work describing a new form of technology based on molecular “assemblers,” which would be able to “place atoms in almost any reasonable arrangement” and thereby allow the formation of “almost anything the laws of nature allow.” This may sound like a fanciful and fantastical idea but, as Drexler points out, this is something that nature already does, unaided by human design, with the biologically based machines inside our own bodies (and those of any biological species).
Another of the defining moments in nanotechnology came in 1989 when Don Eigler used a SPM at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California to spell out the letters IBM from 35 xenon atoms and photographed his success. For the first time we could put atoms exactly where we wanted them, even if keeping them there at much above absolute zero proved to be a problem. While useful in aiding our understanding of the nanoworld, arranging atoms together one by one is unlikely to be of much use in industrial processes.
IBM logo spelled out using 35 xenon atoms
The first commercially available Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) or Scanning Force Microscope (SFM) was also introduced in 1989 and that is still a very powerful tool to work on the nanoscale.
Atomic Force Microscope block diagram (Wikipedia)
In 1991, nanoscale materials became the focus of intense research with the discovery of the carbon nanotubes Sumio Iijima at NEC Fundamental Research Laboratories in Tsukuba, Japan.
Multi-Walled Carbon Nanotube
But while MWNTs are related to fullerenes, they were not molecularly perfect. However, the single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) discovered in 1993, simultaneously by Iijima and Toshinari Ichihashi at NEC in Japan and Donald S. Bethune and others at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, were different.
Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes
Since then, new discoveries in this field are happening almost on a daily basis...