Sunday, May 09, 2004

Zyvex's Von Ehr on pixels, bits and stitches

I'm working on a number of projects, among them an attempt to review the notes, interviews and other material I've gathered the past few years and organize them into something a bit more coherent. Much of what you read on this blog represent snippets of larger pieces of work, or just a bit of longer interviews I'm reviewing.

My goal? Well, I feel like I've been one of only a few navigators of nanotech's undercurrent. It's about time to think about how to surface with the full story. You might see fewer posts here as I focus my energies on writing full chapters. But you can still expect some interesting stuff to surface as NanoBot embarks on the next phase of its fantastic voyage.

vonehrFor now, here's a bit more of my interview in Washington with James Von Ehr, founder of Zyvex Corp., one of the first nanotechnology companies -- and one that still dares to keep alive the dream of true molecular manufacturing. Von Ehr and I spoke at an Indian restaurant in D.C. during a National Nanotechnology Initiative conference in early April. At left is a photograph I took of him at a conference in California last October.

    James Von Ehr: What's the killer product in 10 years? You know, I shy away from telling people what the product is in 10 years. I turn the question around and say, "So, what's the most important thing you'll need in 10 years? Can you tell me?"

    Go back to 1994 and say, "What do you think the most important thing in 2004 is going to be?" The Internet probably wouldn't have been on the list. Very few people even knew that the Internet was there. To have said, "I don't like my megabyte-per-second broadband. I want 100-megabyte-per-second broadband," would have been science fiction in 1994.

    So, I'm not sure what the right product is. All I know is we will need nanomanufacturing facilities to make it. We'll need those to be flexible because, the way our product development is going, we want more flexibility. You look at how long it takes to get out a new cell phone, it's not very long these days. So, you've got to have flexible manufacturing. It's almost a certainty it's going to work at the nanoscale. In 10 years, that's not science fiction to see that trend.

    So, we need flexible nanoscale manufacturing in high volume with quick turnaround time.

    Howard Lovy: Do you picture taking orders from around the world: "I want you to build me this." And you say, "Yes sir, we'll modify our facilities to do that."

    Von Ehr: Something along those lines. What I would envision is that we would probably build a manufacturing device to order for a customer who's making something.

    Lovy: A device bigger than a breadbox?

    Von Ehr: Bigger than a breadbox and smaller than an aircraft carrier. In there, there is a mix of all sorts of scales and all sorts of technologies. But it essentially is a factory to build things at the bottom end, and probably built with atomic precision. Maybe not 100 percent atomically precise, but pretty precise manufacturing. It integrates mechanical, electrical and chemical sorts of things together in the system.

    Lovy: It's just the ultimate machine.

    Von Ehr: Basically, it's an ability to make a manufacturing plant in a flexible fashion. We want to be able to become a manufacturing facility to make whatever products a customer wants to make.

    Lovy: Why?

    Von Ehr: (pauses, smiles). Boy, that's a multidimensional …

    Lovy: I know, I know. It's a horrible question.

    Von Ehr: I can spend the rest of the day answering that.

    It intrigues me to do for the world of atoms what software has done for the world of pixels and bits. The attraction of molecular nanotechnology to a lot of software people is that we're used to creating virtual worlds starting with an idea and instantiating that in pixels and bits. It's fascinating to think that we might have the tools that help us instantiate that in the world of atoms. Because we're made of atoms. There fore, I say that atoms are lot more important to us than pixels and bits.

    So, the ability to start with an idea and come up with a product that could be utilitarian like a database, could be artistic like a graphics program, is very appealing as a software person -- particularly one who has dealt with artists in the past. I'm intrigued at what artists will do with nanotechnology.

    I'm getting older. I'm concerned with what kind of medicine we will have. Having just hurt my thumb and had some fairly crude surgery to patch it back up …

    Lovy: Stitches?

    Von Ehr: Well, they had to actually … It's too gross to go into, but yes there are some stitches, but just thinking, "What should medicine be?" How should we be able to do this? This is the 21st century. We ought to have better medicine than slicing you open with a knife and sowing it back up. So, can't we get in there and work with the body's repair mechanisms and coax them into building the structures that we want, to generate new limbs and patching up damage? So, I just think that life is going to be a lot more interesting as our manufacturing technology gets better. I see that as a solution to a lot of problems.

    Lovy: It sounds noble, but in the real world, in the consumer society, the really big killer app could be just recreation. It could be a toy, it could be a new virtual reality game.

    Von Ehr: Actually, before I started Zyvex, I had a list of a dozen fields that I thought were going to be huge if we can get molecular manufacturing going. Cosmetics is actually a huge deal. Imagine if you have a wrinkle cream that actually does something about wrinkles. Or a fat cream that does something about fat.

    Lovy: That's different from what the cosmetics industry is doing now with titanium dioxide. You're not talking about smaller materials, but regenerative materials.

    Von Ehr: Actually, the ability to engineer nanoparticles or nanomaterials that interact with the cells in a way to coax them to do something that you want them to do.

    Lovy: How old are you?

    Von Ehr: I'm 53

    Lovy: Oh, you've got a long time before you start getting all wrinkly.

    Von Ehr: I'm feeling mortal already.

    Lovy: My point is that it (molecular manufacturing) could lead to something that you don't necessarily approve of – a consumer item, a weapon.

    Von Ehr: It could lead in a lot of directions that I can't foresee and might not approve of, but so has electricity. I think this is going to be at least as useful as electricity.

Related Posts
Nano and nan at NNI
Nanotube Business 101
Nano is chocolate in silicon's peanut butter

Related Small Times stories
Zyvex launches nanocomposite line
Merkle resigns as Zyvex's nano theorist
Zyvex getting down to business; Nanobots? That's for another day

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